“A scientist examines cells in a 96-well plate at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute on Dec. 9, 2014, in Cambridge, England. These plates allow scientists to look at lots of cells simultaneously and directly compare cells that have or have not been treated with a drug. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK
You’ve probably heard this conspiracy theory before, maybe from your uncle who still has his doubts about the Apollo 11 moon landing, or on a Reddit thread exposing the evils of "Big Pharma." It goes like this: A cure for cancer exists, but pharmaceutical companies — and perhaps even government health agencies and cancer charities — are suppressing it because they make so much money from treating the disease or fundraising for it.
In other words, a secret cabal of pharma execs, scientific researchers and cancer nonprofits are letting more than 8 million people die each year worldwide so they can line their pockets with cancer money. Such a plot, if true, would be nothing short of medical genocide.
Ted Gansler is strategic director for pathology research with the American Cancer Society (ACS) where he serves as editor of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Gansler heard the "hidden cure" story so many times that he actually went out and conducted a survey in 2002 about the most common misconceptions about cancer. In it, he asked nearly 1,000 Americans if they believed there was a conspiracy to hide a cancer cure.
"The result was even more shocking than I expected," Gansler writes in an email, reporting that 27.3 percent believed the myth and another 14.3 percent were uncertain. "The ‘secret cancer cure’ is a typical conspiracy theory. Although its popularity is caused partly by ignorance, misunderstanding, and mistrust of science, psychological research indicates that inventing and spreading conspiracy theories is a way for some people to cope with feelings of vulnerability."
Cancer is scary, and few of our lives have been untouched by its devastating reach. But just because the medical establishment hasn’t yet found a blockbuster cure for all cancer doesn’t mean that they’re hiding it from us.
The Money Angle
As Cancer Research UK wrote in a post addressing 10 persistent cancer myths, if Big Pharma indeed had its hands on a cure, even one based on generic drugs or cheap alternatives, it could figure out a way to package the molecules into a patentable therapy that would still make them loads of money. People pay thousands of dollars for cancer treatments currently. Wouldn’t they pay even more for a cure if it existed?
Then there’s the raw fact that pharmaceutical executives, researchers and government officials — and their families — are not immune to cancer.
"Can any conspiracy be so complete that oncologists and even world leaders would be willing to die of cancer in order to protect the alleged secret?" asks Gansler.
Many Cancers Already Have High Survival Rates
But perhaps the most compelling reason why the "hidden cure" conspiracy is false is that there simply could never be one single cure for cancer, because cancer is not one thing. Under the umbrella of "cancer" are hundreds of related diseases that vary substantially in their causes and underlying mechanisms. And even the same type of cancer can "evolve" in unique ways among individuals, requiring different treatment regimens for different patients.
The reality is that there are some cancers, when caught early, that now have long-term survival rates of 70 percent or higher, notes Gansler. These include breast cancer, prostate cancer, urinary bladder cancer and melanoma of the skin. "Unfortunately," he adds, "some kinds of cancer are very resistant to all of the treatments that have been studied so far."
While the "hidden cure" conspiracy is absolutely false, it’s worth asking if the current approaches for funding cancer research and drug development are the best ways to find effective and affordable cures for both common and rare forms of cancer.
The 2017 budget of the National Cancer Institute, for example, a leading funder of scientific and medical research in the U.S., was $5.69 billion. Even though the dollar amount earmarked for the NCI goes up slightly each year, its true value with inflation has gone down consistently since 2003. The NCI usually partners with pharmaceutical companies or universities to conduct clinical trials.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health also set aside nearly $6 billion in its 2017 budget for cancer research, with additional funds invested in specific categories like cancer genomics, breast cancer, cervical cancer and childhood leukemia.
But those public investments are chump change compared to private pharmaceutical companies, which are funneling an estimated $50 billion annually into cancer drug research and development.
Big Pharma and the Search
The imbalance between private and public funding of cancer research has led some critics to argue that Big Pharma is actually slowing the search for a cancer cure by focusing so much money on developing patentable, single-drug treatments rather than testing combination therapies or exploring the repurposing of existing cheaper generic drugs, like even aspirin (see sidebar).
Eugene Brown is a scientific adviser for Global Cures, a nonprofit organization that helps cancer patients find evidence-based therapies that are outside of the typical "standard of care." Those include the use of supplements or generic medications that have shown promise in speeding recovering or alleviating side effects of chemo and radiation.
Global Cures also advocates for research that repurposes existing drugs and FDA-approved compounds not originally created for cancer treatment, an approach that’s often ignored by for-profit pharmaceutical companies and underfunded by government agencies.
Brown disagrees that Big Pharma is the biggest problem preventing us from finding cancer cures and says that expecting pharmaceutical companies to invest in drug repurposing is equivalent to forcing a square peg through a round hole.
"There should be more collaboration where government and public institutions and charitable organization see this as an important goal. And in fact, Big Pharma can be incorporated into the whole scheme," he says.
He notes that a repurposed drug would need a clinical trial in order to be prescribed for cancer, and a pharmaceutical company could provide that either free of charge or at cost as a gesture of goodwill.
Now That’s Cool
Aspirin, a 100-year-old medication that sells for pennies a pill, is now the subject of clinical trials to confirm observational data that breast cancer survivors who take daily aspirin are 50 percent less likely to relapse and die from the disease.