Last week David Gorski wrote a excellent post about why we have not yet cured cancer. It turns out, cancer is a category of many individual diseases that are very challenging to treat. We have made steady progress, and many people with cancer can now be cured – but we have not discovered the one cure for all cancer. I personally am not convinced that we will discover a single cure for all cancer, at least not with any extrapolation of current technology. But if we continue to make progress as we are cancer will become an increasingly treatable and even curable type of disease.
This topic also brings up a meme that has been around for a long time – the notion that scientists have already cured cancer but the cure is being suppressed by the powers that be, to protect cancer as a source of income. In the comments to David’s article, Zuvrick writes:
So we can find a cure. It has probably happened multiple times. But nobody wants to cure cancer. Too many researchers earn a living seeking a cure by remaining inside a narrow, restricted channel of dogma. Their institutions get grant money and survive from the funding. Big Pharma makes big bucks selling chemotherapy drugs, surgeons remove tumors and various radiation devices employ radiologists and firms making these machines. MRI and CT scans would not be needed for cancer if Rife technology were available today.
I have heard or read some version of this claim since before I entered medical school. Superficially it may sound like profound wisdom (cynicism is a cheap way to sound wise) – but the idea collapses under the slightest bit of logical scrutiny.
First, as David thoroughly pointed out, the claim is implausible. Cancer is a complex set of diseases that defy sincere attempts at a cure. Those who promote the notion of the hidden cure often simultaneously promote wacky pseudoscientific treatments that they claim work – and Zuvrick is no exception. He believes that Royal Rife cured cancer 70 years ago. Rife was essentially a copycat of Albert Abrams who promoted his radio frequency devices. The concept is to use radio waves to alter the vibrations of cells in the body. This is pure nonsense. Here is a quick summary from Stephen Barret:
One of Abrams’s many imitators was Royal Raymond Rife (1888-1971), an American who claimed that cancer was caused by bacteria. During the 1920s, he claimed to have developed a powerful microscope that could detect living microbes by the color of auras emitted by their vibratory rates. His Rife Frequency Generator allegedly generates radio waves with precisely the same frequency, causing the offending bacteria to shatter in the same manner as a crystal glass breaks in response to the voice of an opera singer. The American Cancer Society has pointed out that although sound waves can produce vibrations that break glass, radio waves at the power level emitted a Rife generator do not have sufficient energy to destroy bacteria.
But let’s explore the logic of the hidden cure a bit further. Given that cancer is such a complex set of diseases, there is a vast and evolving science exploring the causes and behavior of cancers. This research takes place in numerous labs around the world. A cure for cancer would likely emerge from a collaboration among many researchers, in different labs and institutions, and even in different countries. Even if one lab made a significant breakthrough, it would be the capstone on top of a large body of research that was available to the entire community (and in fact the public). It would be impossible to keep other researchers from replicating the final steps that lead to a cure.
Often the hidden cure conspiracy idea is framed around the claim that a pharmaceutical company would hide such a cure to protect their profits from other cancer drugs. This claim fails not only for the reason above but for a separate practical reason. It would take about 100 millions dollars of research (if not more) to prove that a drug was actually a cure for one type of cancer (let alone all types of cancer). Why would a pharmaceutical company spend that kind of research money on a drug they know they have no intention of marketing, just so that they can suppress it? Also – where would they do such research? How could they get past all the regulatory hurdles to perform human research without revealing what they are doing?
Often those who claim that “they” are hiding a cure for cancer have only a vague notion of who “they” are. They generally have an image of the “medical establishment” as monolithic, but nothing could be further from the truth. The medical establishment is composed of universities, professional organizations, journals, regulatory agencies, researchers, funding agencies, and countless individuals – all with differing incentives and perspectives. The idea that they would all be in on a massive conspiracy to hide perhaps the greatest cure known to mankind is beyond absurd.
For those who think the profit motive is sufficient explanation, not all of the people and institutions named are for profit. And what about countries with socialized medicine who could dramatically reduce their health care costs if a cancer cure were found? Is Canada, the UK, all of the European Union, in fact, in on the conspiracy to protect American cancer treatment profits? It’s as if hidden cure conspiracy theorists forget that there are other countries in the world.
Hidden cancer cure conspiracies also are premised on a simplistic notion of how medicine and medical research progresses. The practice of medicine is constantly evolving in a process of creative destruction. New technologies render older ones obsolete. Resources ebb and flow to diseases as they emerge and are reduced or cured. There used to be entire hospitals dedicated to the chronic treatment of tuberculosis – and now, after antibiotics, those hospitals have been repurposed. Researchers, specialists, hospital space, and other resources shift over time to where they are needed.
If a cure for cancer were discovered it would not be as disruptive as is claimed by the conspiracy theorists. It would take years if not decades of research to explore how effective the treatment was for every type, grade, and stage of cancer. We could not assume that it cured all cancer even if it cured one type. And what about people who did not respond to the treatment, or could not tolerate it for some reason? (One might assume a 100% effective and side effect free cure for all cancer, but this gets progressively more unlikely.) Further, any real breakthrough cure would likely tell us something profound about the nature of cancer itself, and this would spawn entire research programs.
Research funding and researchers themselves would shift their focus where it was needed. Some might shift their skills to other diseases entirely, and perhaps fewer doctors and researchers would go into cancer research if a cure were already found. As with any other significant medical advance, the medical infrastructure would adapt.
Conspiracy theorists also tend to ignore the huge incentive to find a cure. For the researchers involved, it would mean fame, fortune, Nobel prizes and an enduring legacy within the halls of medicine. It is safe to say that it is every cancer researcher’s dream to be part of the team that finds the cure for cancer (or at least as big a breakthrough as is plausible).
The institution would also gain fame and prestige, which translates into more donations, better applicants, and also part ownership of any patents. A company that discovered the cure for cancer would make billions, even if it meant it would make existing drugs obsolete. Patents on drugs are finite, so companies are always looking for new drugs anyway. And imagine the public relations boon for the company that cured cancer – their name would forever be “Pharmaceutical Company – We Cured Cancer!” Even if the new treatment could not be patented, it would still be an enduring profit stream for the original company to market it – it would become their Tylenol, only bigger.
And of course the health care systems around the world would rejoice at the potential reduction in health care costs, which are now threatening to cripple the system. Doctors, hospitals, researchers – pretty much everyone, is making less money than they were a couple decades ago because of rising health care costs. The system is now being threatened by further cuts and restrictions to tame rising costs. A significant reduction in overall costs, by curing an expensive disease, would ease the pressure on the entire system, and free up resources for other diseases.
Finally, there is the human element. A hidden cure would require individual people to know that a cure for cancer is available but to deny this cure to dying patients in order to protect their or someone else’s profit. There may be people in the world who are that callous and evil, but think of all the people who would have to be that evil, over years or decades, to maintain a hidden cure. These are people who also have loved-ones who are likely to get cancer at some point in their lives, and who themselves are at risk for cancer. I would not casually assume that the medical establishment is full with such cartoonish maniacal villains.
The grand conspiracy of the hidden cancer cure is a meme that I wish would go away, but for some reason persists. It is like an urban legend – it appeals to some ill-formed fear or anxiety produced by the complexity of modern society. It gives a focus to these anxieties, and gives the illusion of control. No one wants to feel as if they are being deceived, and so assuming there is a conspiracy feels like a good way to avoid being duped. But ironically it is the conspiracy theorists who are being duped, or who are doing the deceiving.
The notion of a hidden cure is also dependent on seeing institutions with which one is not personally familiar as faceless and monolithic organizations, comprised of obedient drones. But these institutions are made of people – ordinary people with flaws and feelings and families just like everyone else.