5X5 Episode 108
- S: Steven Novella
- E: Evan Bernstein
- J: Jay Novella
- R: Rebecca Watson
- B: Bob Novella
You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.
S: This is the SGU five by five and tonight we're talking about the cure for cancer. Do we have a cure for cancer? Why don't we have a cure for cancer? Is it even plausible to think about a cure for all cancer? Well cancer is actually not a single disease, it's a category of diseases. And we have been waging the war on cancer for half of a century, and yet it may seem as if we're not making much progress. Well, cancer is definitely a tough nut to crack. What characterising it, as a type of disease, is essentially cells that, through one or more mutations, grow out of control. The normal mechanisms that are in place to keep cells from growing or reproducing or to make sure that they die after a certain period of time, are altered so that the tissue begins to grow out of control and can either form a solid tumour or cancerous cells in the blood and cancers have a tendency to spread from one part of the body to another, called metastasis. It's a very difficult type of disease to treat because we have to find some way to target cancer cells and kill them without killing too much or too many healthy cells. And while we have many treatments that are effective to some degree, there is no magic bullet and there's nothing that works for all cancers. So the mainstream therapies include chemotherapy, drugs that target rapidly producing cells generally or target some aspect of certain types of cancers, their need for a blood supply for example. We have surgery obviously, to remove solid tumours, and radiation therapy which also has a tendency to kill more rapidly reproducing cells, like cancer cells. Some cancers tend to be more sensitive to radiation than healthy cells and there are techniques for targeting the radiation against tumours and limiting the exposure of healthy tissue. Now all of these techniques together have led to a steady, slow increase in survival in all age groups and for most cancers, although certainly not all. And even just the latest statistics out about cancer survival show that this trend is continuing, so we are slowly gaining, we are making gains in terms of increasing the probability of surviving various kinds of cancer, but there is no one cure for cancer and many cancers still remain very illusive.
E: That almost begs the question, is there a conspiracy to hide the cure for cancer? It's a meme that's been around for a long time, it's this notion that scientists have already cured cancer, but the cure is being suppressed by the powers that need to protect cancer, primarily as a source of income. So could that possibly be true? Well, I'd say that definitely qualifies as an extraordinary claim, but do the conspiracy theorists provide any solid evidence to support that idea? And I say they don't. Well, first and foremost, their claim is implausible. It's much like the homeopath refuses to realise the implausibility of the concept that nothing can cure something. The cancer cure conspiracy theorist refuses to recognise the immense complexities that he or she is suggesting. As you said, Steve, cancer is a classification that encompasses many diseases so for your conspiracy theory to have these kinds of legs you have to believe that the cure has been found. You have to ask, what sort of technology is available that could possibly make this happen? What has everyone else missed that these few researchers apparently have hit upon? What life altering piece of the puzzle has the medical community missed over these past decades of research? So without this plausible mechanism, the conspiracy theory remains entirely vacuous. But next you have to believe that the cure is being suppressed from the public view by a relatively few number of people and they would have to keep it quiet from bigger agencies such as governments, that is unless you want to make the government a part of the conspiracy, but then you have to open that up to all governments in the modernised world, and seeing as a conspiracy theory unravels exponentially relative to the greater number of people involved in it, well you're now in a territory that's usually reserved for the UFO and ET conspiracy theorists. And also, you have to ask, where are the test subjects, and how do these conspiracy theorists know that a treatment even works without seeing the people that were suffering from the illness? Were they part of the conspiracy too, and why wouldn't they want to come forward? And what about their families, their relatives? Is there a release or a leak of super-secret documents that outlines these details, what are the theorists suggesting? And there's many more examples of the implausibility of it all, but it has to be stressed that the implausibility is huge. It correctly categorises cancer cure conspiracy theorists as full-time residents of fantasy land.
S: yeah, I think the big thing for me is that if you're going to hypothesise that somebody out there has the cure for cancer, that would have to be based on a pretty large research program, understanding the nature of cancer and how the treatment might work, and that can't come out of nowhere. You couldn't hide all of the scientific information that would be necessary to come up with the cure for cancer and there would be no way to keep it secret, as you said from not only the entire medical community, but internationally. Because why wouldn't just the physicians of another country hit on the same cure? How could you keep it under wraps for so long? This one definitely collapses under its own implausibility.
B: yeah Steve, when you look at what it would actually take to mount the studies and research necessary to actually cure a cancer, let alone all cancers, it would cost at least a hundred million dollars, likely much more than that, all this money spent to prove that a drug can cause cancer, and then what do they do with it? Why would they spend so much money on so much research involving so many people, only to hide the cure? It's just one of the many implausibilities. And like you said, Steve, considering the collaboration that would be required, we're talking so many people in institutions and even countries working together, it would be essentially impossible to keep a secret that big or prevent one team replicating a breakthrough that another team may have had and then hidden. Or consider this, another one that I find compelling, is that all these people that would have to be involved in the conspiracy, these are regular people as well, they have relatives and even themselves are dying of cancer, so would they just ignore this cure to keep the conspiracy? How could they possibly even do that?
J: Bob, you know what I find very ironic is that the real BS here and the cure for cancer is actually in the people who are saying they do have cures, and I did a quick search on Google as an example, I typed in cancer cure, and the first six websites that came up for me all had pseudo-science. The first one I found was cancercenter.com and it had acupuncture listed as a cure for cancer. Second one I found was cancernaturalcure and this one says one of the biggest reasons is a faulty diet. The next website I found gave dozens of reasons why people have cancer and dozens of ways to cure cancer, a lot of them having to do with a detoxification, the acidity of your body. The next site I found basically talked about how mother nature has provided hundreds of cures for cancer and the list goes on and on, I can continue to go. I did find one saying that the cure for cancer is being hidden, of course a conspiracy is thrown in there, and another one that said that there's been a cure for cancer for 35 years and giving some type of theory about why it's being hidden from the public and everything. The problem here is, and the thing that bothered me the most is that when you type in cure for cancer or cancer cure to Google and you're getting all these results, you're not getting anything legitimate until page 2.
R: what I find most galling is that there are hucksters out there like Kevin Trudeau who will pretend as though they have a cure for cancer, for instance in his book Natural Cures, they don't want you to know about. And he plays on all those fears of the pharmaceutical industry covering up a real cure and all of those hopes that something simple and natural might be used to cure your cancer. And then he doesn't deliver, he doesn't even really give any "cure", he suggests that your body should be more alkaline and that will maybe prevent you from getting cancer, but mostly he just wants you to go to his website and sign up for a subscription for $1000 and there he promises you'll find the real cures, and once you do that, you don't find that, you just find more run around. So, unfortunately because of the complexity of finding a cure for cancer, hucksters see this as ample opportunity to take advantage of people who are at their lowest point, and who most desperately need medical attention. So these frauds, basically sweep in and they take people's money, and they take their hope and unfortunately, sometimes they take their lives.
S: yeah, to end on a bright spot though, the research into the nature of the different cancers, how they function, what makes them cancerous, is ongoing and is progressing. We are advancing, it is baby steps, I don't think there's going to be one big breakthrough that's going to cure cancer. We're going to continue to slowly advance on this, and we are. Every day there's research out there that's increasing and deepening our knowledge of cancers and leading to new potential cures and when you hear about a scientific breakthrough, about some new treatment that might work against cancer, it's probably not going to be the cure for cancer, but it probably will be one more tool in our armamentarium to all the different treatments that we have and get us one step closer to really knocking back this disease. So, yep, there's a lot of fraud, there's a lot of pseudo-science, there's a lot of conspiracy thinking, there's a lot of hype, but in the background cancer researchers are slowly, slowly progressing. But we are moving in the right direction.
S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.