Is There a Conspiracy to Suppress Cancer Cures?
Steven Novella, M.D.
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Quacks typically charge that the medical profession, drug companies, the food industry, government agencies, and/or other "vested interests" are conspiring against "natural" cancer cures. No such conspiracy has ever been exposed. Yet many patients—especially those whom standard medicine cannot cure—embrace the notion that a small but dedicated band of rebels is defying the medical establishment by making natural cures available. And desperate patients may find it more comfortable to believe that cures are being suppressed than to feel that their situation is hopeless.
The conspiracy charge has two common scenarios. In one, opposition is based on fear of competition. In the other, a cure discovered within the establishment is suppressed. Neither of these situations makes sense.
The medical establishment is not a single entity. The health-care industry includes physicians, nurses, other health professionals, insurance companies, private consumer organizations, universities, government agencies (such as the FDA), hospitals, HMOs, other managed-care organizations, professional organizations (such as the AMA), pharmaceutical companies, and other private corporations. These groups may have competing interests; and, within each group, individual members may also have competing interests, and many have no financial stake in patient care. Some private physicians get paid for each patient they see, but others do not. Most who work for HMOs or other managed-care organizations are either salaried or capitated (receiving a fixed monthly sum per patient not per service). Those who pursue an academic career may be salaried and/or obtain money from research grants. For physicians on fixed incomes, more patients means more work, but not more money. Some physicians dedicate their career to public health and do not see patients at all. And if an expensive cancer treatment could be replaced by something much less costly, insurance companies would embrace it.
The medical professionals most likely to know about a new cancer cure would be those in academic medicine and research. New potential treatments are usually discovered by basic scientists who do laboratory research on the underlying mechanisms of disease. Their findings then suggest possible treatment strategies for those diseases. Drug companies or research institutes such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Cancer Institute (NCI), then fund clinical research to see whether the potential new treatment works—first on animals and then on humans. The final arbiter of such new treatments is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which decides whether new treatments are safe and effective for their intended purposes. Most cancer treatment is administered by surgeons, radiologists, and cancer specialists who administer chemotherapy. The majority of doctors don't treat patients for cancer.
What about scientists who discover new treatments? If they can demonstrate effectiveness, publishing their data will bring them fame and fortune. The benefits could include research grants, academic promotion, enhanced research facilities, speaking invitations, honors, awards, and other career opportunities. Even scientists who are selfish and greedy would have much to gain by making their information public—and so would the institutions in which they work.
What about drug companies? Won't they simply abandon a new drug that threatens their existing drugs? This scenario is also far-fetched. Drug companies are continuously looking for new drugs, because existing drugs have patents that will run out. Also, any company that can market a new drug that is effective against cancer will come out billions of dollars ahead, even if existing drugs become obsolete. Some conspiracy theorists claim that drug companies ignore "natural" substances that cannot be patented and therefore cannot be profitable. However, if a natural substance is found useful, drug companies can develop related chemicals that are more effective.
Even if a short-sighted drug company executive decided to suppress a new drug because it was too effective, the scientists involved might still go public with the information, for the general good if for no other reason. Among the dozens of people who have inside knowledge, someone is likely to have a conscience. The need for drug company support could be eliminated by obtaining a grant from the National Cancer Institute. Also, if the treatment really worked, other researchers would eventually be able to demonstrate to the world that the treatment did in fact cure cancer. This has never been done for any supposedly "suppressed" cancer cure.
Conspiracy theorists have claimed that if a simple and inexpensive replacement for today's treatments were found tomorrow, all U.S. medical schools would teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, because cancer treatment is such an important part of their income. This assertion has several flaws:
- A "simple and inexpensive" replacement for today's treatments is very unlikely. Cancer is not a single disease, but group of more than 100 different types. No single treatment has proven effective for every cancer, and no such "magic bullet" is likely to be discovered in the near future.
- Even if a magic bullet could be found, it would not be available soon and extensive testing would be required before standard treatments could be ethically abandoned in its favor. The necessary research would take many years, giving hospitals and medical schools time to adapt. Physicians and researchers would not be put out of work by any such innovation. If the new treatment results in an oversupply of cancer specialists, fewer physicians-in-training would choose this specialty, and some oncologists would retrain for another type of practice. Some researchers might need to change the focus of their research, but their basic skills should make that simple.
- Widespread adoption of a quack cancer treatment would actually be the biggest threat its promoters could face, because competition would cause the price to drop.
Because standard medicine is based largely upon science and evidence, medical practice is constantly changing. New treatments, procedures, and avenues of research are created as our knowledge expands. Every time a new treatment is discovered, an older treatment becomes obsolete, or at least less important. Progress strengthens the health-care industry and is not a threat to it. Half a century ago, tuberculosis (TB) was widespread and incurable, entire hospitals were dedicated to the care of chronic cases. After antibiotics became available, the TB hospitals were emptied and TB specialists were rarely needed. The new TB treatments were not suppressed because of the impact they would have. Instead, the hospitals were converted for other uses and the specialists changed their practice.
Remember, too, that physicians, basic scientists, and even pharmaceutical company executives are people, with family and loved ones of their own. Many of the supposed conspirators are likely to be affected by cancer—either themselves or within their family and friends. It is difficult to imagine that anyone could be greedy and short-sighted enough to condemn their loved ones—and even themselves—to a premature death from cancer, no matter what the possible gain.
Dr. Novella, a member of Quackwatch's advisory board, is Assistant Professor of Neurology at Yale University School of Medicine and president of the The New England Skeptical Society.
This article was posted on June 22, 2000..