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Scams and Shams That Prey on Cancer Patients

In some cases, unproven 'therapies' can be dangerous, experts say

MONDAY, Sept. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Cancer patients often turn to the Internet as a source of information and hope. But all too often, those hopes are betrayed by purveyors of so-called cancer "cures" that are anything but, experts say.

Earlier this month, five companies were charged with making false and misleading claims for cancer cures, and settlements were reached with six other companies, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced. Products marketed by the companies included essiac teas and other herbal mixtures, laetrile, black salve (a corrosive ointment), and mushroom extracts.

"There is no credible scientific evidence that any of the products marketed by these companies can prevent, cure, or treat cancer of any kind," said Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, the Associated Press reported.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to two dozen companies peddling everything from cure-all teas to tablets and tonics. And earlier this year, more than 100 manufacturers of such products were issued similar letters.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, black salves are one of the most dangerous of these fake cures. The products, which supposedly "draw out" the disease from under the skin, can actually burn the skin and cause scarring.

Which is not to say that none of these compounds has potential as cancer fighters. But consumers need to be careful.

"Many of these compounds touted as having beneficial effects have lots of lab research, but it's more selling hope in a jar based on preliminary lab research," said Sarah Wally, a nutritionist with the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. "That's not fair to the consumer, particularly consumers with cancer who have a really strong motivation to try anything that might offer hope."

Many of these so-called cures or preventive treatments won't actually cause harm (except to your wallet), but some can interact with regular, supervised medical treatment, Wally said.

"Antioxidants can actually interfere with chemotherapy and radiation treatment," she said. "Some people think, 'I'm just drinking juice.' But they might be drinking two gallons of juice a day of super-antioxidant juice compound, not thinking to discuss it with their doctor."

And, some consumers may actually forego lifesaving conventional treatments in favor of shams.

Here's some advice from the experts:

  • "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," said Dr. Ted Gansler, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society. Beware of claims that one treatment will cure all types of cancer or more than one type of disease. Also be leery of language such as "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient" and "ancient remedy," as well as claims that a product is "natural" and therefore safe. And take note of claims that the product has limited availability and that the company needs advance payment.
  • Find out if the product has ever been tested in humans. Laboratory and animal research is fine, but only as a starting point, not as a basis for recommending the therapy in humans, Wally said.
  • "Be careful about the credentials of the people promoting the treatment," Gansler said. "The possibility that someone with no medical or scientific treatment is going to come up with a cure for cancer or other diseases is not very likely." Reliable sources of information include the American Cancer Society, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. (All have Web sites.)
  • "Watch out for evidence that is only testimonial," Gansler said. "In some of the most notorious alternative clinics, people will be diagnosed with cancer who don't even have cancer and, later on, they're 'cured.' " The "patient" may actually believe he or she was cured.
  • Be on the lookout for obvious factual errors. If someone says their "Stage 7" cancer has been cured, be leery. There is no "Stage 7" cancer.
  • Wally advised: "Before you wholeheartedly jump into these things, you need to really sit down and have a discussion with your physician." This is especially true in an age when alternative and complementary medicines are gaining acceptance. It can be tricky distinguishing between something bogus and something that may have a benefit, Wally added.

More information

The FDA has more on fake cancer cures to be avoided.

SOURCES: Sarah Wally, M.S., R.D., nutritionist, American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington, D.C.; Ted Gansler, M.D., director, medical content, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; July 2008 American Institute for Cancer Research newsletter; U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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