The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week that it was cracking down on 14 companies that sell various pills, ointments, oils, teas and diagnostic devices that falsely — and illegally — claim to diagnose, treat or cure cancer.
The agency gave the companies — who sell their bogus products almost exclusively online — 15 days to correct the violations or face further action, “including criminal prosecutions, product seizures and injunctions.”
Several dozen products are affected by the crackdown. As the FDA acknowledges, it has issued more than 90 similar letters over the past decade. Unfortunately, companies will often just move their products — and their marketing of them — to different websites.
These companies are, of course, preying — and profiting — on the fears and desperation of cancer patients and their families. There is absolutely no evidence that their products have any effect on the disease, and to suggest otherwise is not only cruel, but potentially harmful. Such “miracle cures,” which are unregulated before they go on the market, may contain ingredients that are toxic or that interfere with the effectiveness of prescription medications.
But conventional medicine shouldn’t feel too smug about the FDA’s crackdown. For it, too, has a history of offering cancer patients false hope, as medical reporter Liz Szabo explains in an article published last week by Kaiser Health News.
The uncomfortable (and seldom told) truth regarding the current state of cancer treatment is this: Many new cancer “breakthroughs” and therapies are overhyped.
Patients and families are bombarded with the news that the country is winning the war against cancer. The news media hypes research results to attract readers. Drug companies promise “a chance to live longer” to boost sales. Hospitals woo paying customers with ads that appeal to patients’ fears and hopes.
“I’m starting to hear more and more that we are better than I think we really are,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. “We’re starting to believe our own bullshit.”
The consequences are real — and they can be deadly. Patients and their families have bought into treatments that either don’t work, cost a fortune or cause life-threatening side effects.
“We have a lot of patients who spend their families into bankruptcy getting a hyped therapy that [many] know is worthless,” Brawley said. Some choose a medicine that “has a lot of hype around it and unfortunately lose their chance for a cure.”
Although scientists have made important strides in recent years, and many early-stage cancers can now be cured, most of those with advanced cancer eventually die of their disease.
Allegations of false claims
As Szabo notes, a variety of interests are heavily invested in the overhyping of cancer treatments, including some hospitals:
Hospitals also have drawn criticism for overstating their success in treating cancer. In 1996, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a for-profit chain, settled allegations from the Federal Trade Commission that “they made false and unsubstantiated claims in advertising and promoting their cancer treatments.”
The company’s current commercials — dozens of which are featured on their website — boast of offering “genomic testing” and “precision cancer treatment.”
The commercials don’t tell patients that these tests — which aim to pair cancer patients with drugs that target the specific mutations in their tumors — are rarely successful, [said Dr. Vinay Prasad, an assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University]. In clinical trials, these tests have matched only 6.4 percent of patients with a drug, according to Prasad’s 2016 article in Nature. Because these drugs only manage to shrink a fraction of tumors, Prasad estimates that just 1.5 percent of patients actually benefit from precision oncology. …
Spending on ads for hospitals that treat cancer soared 220 percent from $54 million in 2005 to $173 million in 2014, according to a 2016 article in JAMA Internal Medicine. Ads for Cancer Treatment Centers of America accounted for nearly 60 percent of all total cancer center advertising.
(The Cancer Treatments Centers of America issued this statement to Szabo: “We use national media to help educate cancer patients and their families about the latest diagnostic tools and treatment options. … All of our advertising undergoes meticulous review for clinical accuracy as well as legal approval to ensure we tell our story in an informative and responsible manner, and in compliance with federal guidelines.”)
Over the decades, new cancer therapies have been rolled out “with great fanfare,” writes Szabo, only to fail to live up to the expectations. Immunotherapy is one such example:
Researchers have tested immunotherapies against a variety of tumors, leading to approvals in lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer and others.
Such success has led doctors to label cancer immunotherapy as a “game changer.” Newspapers and magazines call it a “breakthrough.” And hospitals laud them as “a miracle in the making.”
Yet these treatments — which were initially assumed to be gentler than chemotherapy — can provoke fatal immune system attacks on the lungs, kidneys, heart and other organs.
And there are no approved immunotherapies for tumors of the breast, colon, prostate and pancreas.
Only about 10 percent of all cancer patients can expect to benefit from immunotherapy, Prasad said.
The personal cost
As the brother of one patient who tried immunotherapy (and several other experimental treatments) before dying of his cancer 3½ years later told Szabo, “I thought we were going to have a treatment where we’d at least have a good block of quality time.”
Instead, those experimental treatments made his brother sicker. He developed flu-like symptoms, nausea and became unable to eat or move his bowels. The treatments also led to dangerous infections that sent him to hospital emergency departments.
“I hope that if something like that happens to me,” the brother said, “I would be strong enough to say no to treatment.”