How bogus cancer treatments prey on the most vulnerable

Isobel Cockerell

 

This week, a Twitter thread advertising to followers that cancer can be fought “naturally,” mostly through changes in diet, got 200,000 likes in just 48 hours. The post tells patients to fast in order to “starve” the cancer, and to “hack your DNA” and “boost your stem cells” by eating certain foods. It attracted scores of supportive comments. 

Scientists and doctors then chimed in to debunk the misinformation on the thread. Dr. David Robert Grimes, a cancer researcher, was one scientist who responded, challenging some of its claims. “This kind of advice doesn’t help patients, and often shames them needlessly, or drives them to dangerous restrictive diets,” he wrote, describing how “dietary quackery” for cancer is a huge, widespread problem that can push patients into dangerous choices. 

Grimes told me last year that anyone with cancer is especially vulnerable to “snake oil.”

“In those circumstances, even the most sober-headed realist can be taken in by those who promise miraculous cures with no side-effects,” he said.

On the thread, scientists predictably became the targets of attacks, being told to “stop poisoning cancer patients with chemo.” The “alternative” cancer treatment movement is a massive, multi-million dollar industry dealing out false hope. It’s a topic we’ve been tracking at Coda for years — from the global campaign to discredit the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer, to the myriad bogus cancer treatments, such as light therapy and ozone treatments, that are peddled to vulnerable cancer patients and their families.

I’ve written before about Ty and Charlene Bollinger, the former bodybuilder and ex-model who built an empire by promoting unproven cancer treatments, and who held an anti-science “Make America Great Again” freedom rally on January 6, 2021. They believe chemotherapy is “poison” and push vitamin C injections and “vibrational therapy” onto their 22 million viewers. They told me in a statement last year that they’re “pro-science and pro-choice when it comes to cancer treatments and vaccines.” 

There’s a growing movement of scientists and doctors dedicated, like Grimes, to fighting back against this kind of cancer misinformation. A London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine researcher, Marco Zenone, posted a devastating series of screenshots showing comments from people who paid thousands of dollars to check into Mexico’s myriad cancer treatment centers, which sell unproven and unapproved treatments to desperate patients who’ve run out of options. 

“When doctors tell you that your loved one has no chance of living due to cancer,” wrote the daughter of a man who paid over $35,000 for alternative treatments in a Tijuana clinic, “we all just want hope. Unfortunately this place sometimes gives false hope and takes advantage of people who are vulnerable.” Her father went into septic shock and died within a fortnight of starting the alternative treatments.

IN GLOBAL NEWS

Last year, Hungary promised to open a “National Covid Vaccine Factory” by the end of 2022. It’s now September, and construction on the factory has barely progressed — and it’s also shrouded in mystery. Recently the Hungarian government has been opaque about what vaccines will be produced there — simply saying it will be “a vaccine” and the final cost of the factory is unknown. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Hungary’s foreign minister promised to take vaccine cooperation with Russia “to a new level” with domestic production of Russia’s Sputnik shot. But since the war, there’s been silence. Hungary was the first to break ranks with the EU in 2021 to buy Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, a decision that came hand-in-hand with discussions of new, long-term gas shipments from Russia’s Gazprom. It now looks like the war in Ukraine is upending Russian vaccine diplomacy even as Hungary continues to step up its imports of Russian gas.

Staying in Hungary for a moment — last month we brought you news of two meteorologists who were fired by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government for getting the forecast wrong ahead of a patriotic event. Now weather announcers in Germany and Sweden too are facing a backlash. As Sweden prepares for elections on Sunday, a right-wing MP is accusing weather broadcasters of “climate hysteria,” falsely claiming that announcers are manipulating the graphic design of weather to exaggerate global warming. In Germany, a meteorologist who feels compelled to bring climate change into his forecasts has been facing accusations from climate deniers that he is “secretly campaigning” for the country’s green party. The weather reporter, Ozden Terli, told Politico he believes tracking climate change will increasingly become part of the meteorologist’s daily job. “Perhaps weather reports won’t exist anymore. Maybe we’ll have climate reports instead, with the weather on the side,” he said.Nearly 70% of South Africans oppose trophy hunting, the sport where animals are killed for fun, not food. Participants pay up to $150,000 to take part and bring a “trophy” back home with them. But the South African government has made repeated claims that “regulated and sustainable hunting is an important conservation tool for South Africa.” It’s also a big tourist industry, worth more than $340 million to the country’s economy with South Africa exporting more than 4,000 trophies a year. But the government’s claim that the practice is a helpful conservation tool has been widely disputed by experts. Only a quarter of the species hunted are managed under the national conservation plan, and earlier this year, South Africa announced it would allow the hunting of leopards, endangered elephants, and critically endangered black rhinos. Trophy hunting’s conservation claims made by the government are based on “extremely little evidence,” according to a recent report

WHAT WE’RE READING 

If you read one piece this week, make it Merope Mills’s devastating account of losing her daughter in a leading NHS Hospital in Britain, after a litany of shocking mistakes were made by the doctors caring for her. This newsletter champions the voices of doctors and scientists. It celebrates experts and evidence. But, as Mills writes for the Guardian, our blind faith in doctors should have limits. “Educate yourself, ask questions, and, if you are unsure, insist on a second opinion, or a third,” Mills writes. “However indebted you feel to the NHS, don’t be afraid to challenge decisions if you have a good reason to.”

Tracking coronavirus disinformation from around the world

More Coda Newsletters