Learning About New Cancer Treatments

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Look at where the information came from

To start, you will need to consider the source of the information.

  • Was there a report in the newspaper or news magazine?
  • Was it discussed on a television or radio program?
  • Did the news come from an Internet site that also happens to be selling the treatment?
  • Did a health food store employee suggest it?
  • Was there a study published in a well-known, respected, peer-reviewed medical journal such as the New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the National Cancer Institute?
  • Did someone tell you about someone else who used it and was cured of cancer?

Did it come from news reports?

If you see a report in a respected newspaper or magazine, don’t just look at the headlines—sometimes they can be overstated or misleading. You will need to read the article carefully to find out where the reporters got their information. Look for these things:

  • Is this a press release from a drug company announcing a new breakthrough?
  • Is it a report from a clinical study that was given at a scientific conference?
  • Is it a report from a clinical trial that was published in a respected medical journal?
  • What do you know about the research center where the clinical trial took place?

Broadcasts

If the report was on the TV or radio, you’ll want to know if what you saw or heard can be trusted. Was the news reviewed and reported by a doctor, or was it a non-medical person such as a reporter or news anchor? Some news groups use medical reporters so that medical and health news can be reported more clearly to the public. Journalists without medical training don’t usually understand all the medical background and previous related research on the subject, so they may not be able to give a clear, unbiased view.

Was it a commercial or an infomercial? Keep in mind that these are ads that tell you only what they want you to hear. You have to look carefully to learn if studies have been done, or find other reliable sources to learn more. (See the section called “Was it from a seller’s promotion?”)

If you heard about a study on a reliable news report, try to remember the details. Look for the kind of information that you would get from a newspaper, including where the new information came from. Getting these facts from broadcasts can be much harder than from printed reports, because it’s hard to remember everything you hear on a short TV or radio report. And you can’t always go back and search for the facts after the broadcast is over. Even if you can recall everything you heard, important details may be left out because they have so little time to cover the subject.

Some news outlets post extra information or replay their newscasts on their Web sites. If you are unable to find more on the Web site, you may want to try contacting the TV or radio station to get your questions answered. It’s better to do this right away rather than wait. Sometimes, a question that might be answered easily a day or two after the broadcast might become impossible to answer after a month or two. And, if it turns out that part of their report was wrong, you may find corrections or clarifications online soon after the report was aired.

Was it anecdotal information?

If someone told you about the cousin of a friend, or some other person who got better on this treatment, it’s called anecdotal information. This often means that you get a second or third-hand report that the treatment worked for a certain person.

Can you check the story and find its source? Is there a way to be sure that what you were told really happened? Keep in mind that even if one person got better on the treatment, it’s impossible to say what exactly caused the change. For instance, a person who has been treated for cancer may take an herbal medicine because he still feels tired a lot. Then he may notice he feels better, and his cancer doesn’t come back. He may credit the herb with feeling better, even though it would have happened anyway without the herb. He may even believe that the herb cured his cancer or kept it from coming back—even though he got mainstream medical treatment first.

There have also been reports from people who had a lump or spot on their skin and never saw a doctor for it. Some of these people believed that their lump or spot was cancer, even if it wasn’t, and took an unproven treatment for it. There’s no way of knowing if they had an infection, a cyst, or something else. Still, some of these people feel sure that their problem went away because their “cancer” was cured by the unproven treatment.

Other times, a person may believe that their cancer went away after they got an unproven treatment. They gratefully tell everyone that they have been cured. But if the cancer comes back later, they don’t usually go back to update all the people they told about the cure. Sadly, these people may wrongly believe – even years later – that the person was cured by the treatment. They may end up taking a treatment that didn’t work even for the one person they thought was cured by it.

Anecdotal information can cause problems even with proven treatments if you don’t know the whole story. Let’s say a treatment cures 2 out of 5 people with a certain problem. One of your friends who took this treatment tells you that he was cured by it, and since you have the same illness, it seems like a good idea. But if you didn’t find out more, you might pass up another treatment that cures 4 out of 5 people with the same problem. Even though you would have twice the chance of cure with the second treatment, your friend’s success makes the first treatment seem like a good choice. This isn’t likely to happen with cancer treatments, because your doctor will help you choose the best treatment for your situation.

There are many other ways that honest people with good intentions can draw the wrong conclusion from a single person’s experience. This is why scientists test new cancer treatments under careful conditions. They want to test the treatment on many people who are known to have the disease, so they can be sure of the outcome.

Was it from a seller’s promotion?

If the report came from an Internet seller, you may have lots of searching to do. Many companies that sell treatments on the Internet talk about the healing powers of herbs and supplements that have never been proven to heal anything in people. Others use outright lies and fraud to make their Web site look official. Some have written fake quotes from doctors. Others have reported on studies that were either never done or were misrepresented, saying that they were from well-known cancer treatment centers. There have been instances where ads or Web sites had people dressed up as doctors who appeared to use or endorse the product. Some have even implied that their product was endorsed by the American Cancer Society.

Some marketers have falsely said that their treatment or device was approved by the FDA. Others note that their device is registered with the FDA. Even if that’s true, registration is not the same as approval. Registration does not require proof that the device works or is safe. Another take on this is that a device is said to be FDA approved, and it is—but when you investigate, it’s not approved for the purpose they claim. You can find out more by calling the FDA. (See the “To learn more” section.)

Sometimes the staff at nutrition centers and herbal shops will make suggestions or even prescribe treatments for cancer and other conditions. Studies looking at these shopkeeper recommendations found that none of the suggested treatments had been proven to help people with cancer. In fact, some of these types of treatments can cause harm. (For more information on these treatments, see our documents Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer and Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?)

There are also commercials and infomercials that present new cancer treatments on television. These are often set up to look like news interviews, and can be very misleading, since they are set up and scripted by the sellers of the product. In fact, you may later learn that some of the people who sell cancer cures or “secret cancer information” in these ways have been jailed for fraud. But when the reports first come out, they can sound very promising, and plenty of people want to think there’s a miracle that can help them. It can be hard to know what to believe without more information.

What about press releases?

Sometimes a company will put out a press release about a promising treatment. This may be done after a lab or animal study, or a small clinical trial (study on humans). But even if a press release comes out after a study was done on a lot of people, the company is only telling the press what they want the public to hear. This is not the same as having fellow scientists carefully look at the study methods and outcome.

Is it from a conference presentation?

Researchers often share early results of their studies at professional conferences. This can sometimes make a study sound very dramatic, and it can make news headlines. Reporters go to these conferences looking for just this kind of story.

As you read conference reports, it’s important to know who’s doing the study and where they are in the process of the study. Sometimes, the study is being done using all the careful methods of a well-run clinical trial, and the researcher is sharing his or her early data with the audience. But the final outcomes of these studies are not complete at the time of the presentation. And, in most cases, the peer review that’s needed before publication also has not yet been done. By the time the study is published – if it even gets published – the results may be quite a bit different from the conference presentation.


Last Medical Review: 09/04/2012
Last Revised: 09/04/2012