Where did the information about the new cancer treatment come from?

To start, you’ll need to look at the source of the information:

  • Was it in a newspaper or magazine?
  • Was it discussed on a TV or radio program?
  • Was it on the Internet on a website 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?

Was it in a respected newspaper or magazine?

Don’t just read the headlines – sometimes they can be overstated or misleading. You’ll need to read the whole article carefully to find out where the reporters got their information:

  • Is this a press release from a drug company announcing a new breakthrough?
  • Is it a report from a clinical study that was shared 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?

Was it on a TV or radio program?

You’ll want to know if what you saw or heard can be trusted. Was the news reviewed and reported by a real medical professional, or was it a non-medical person, like a reporter or news anchor? Some news groups use medical reporters to explain medical and health news 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 on a reliable news channel?

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. 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.

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 websites. If you’re unable to find more on the website, you might 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 becomes impossible to answer after a month or two. And, if it turns out that part of their report was wrong, you might find corrections or clarifications online soon after the report was aired.

Was it anecdotal information?

If someone told you about the friend 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 example, a person who has just finished cancer treatment 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.

He may then gratefully tell everyone that he’s been cured. But if the cancer comes back later, he probably won’t go back to update all the people he told about the cure. Sadly, these people may wrongly believe – even years later – that he was cured by the treatment. And as a result, they may end up recommending or even taking a treatment that didn’t work even for the one person they thought was cured by it.

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 a promotion from a seller?

Many companies that sell treatments online talk about the healing powers of herbs and supplements that have never been proven to heal anything in people. Some use outright lies and fraud to make their websites 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 even been instances where ads or websites had people dressed up as doctors who appeared to use or endorse the product.

Some marketers have implied that their product was endorsed by the American Cancer Society. Some have even falsely said that their treatment or device was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Others note that their device is registered with the FDA. But 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 about these claims by calling the FDA at 1-888-463-6332 or visiting www.fda.gov.

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 Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer and Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?)

There are also commercials and infomercials that present new cancer treatments on TV. These are often set up to look like news interviews, and can be very misleading, since they’re 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.

Was it in a press release?

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.

Was 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 study process. 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 when the presentation is given. 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 initial conference presentation.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: May 10, 2016 Last Revised: May 10, 2016

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