Viral Cancer Cure Conspiracies

Social media sites are littered with these gaudy meme-ish images that tell us how we can contract cancer from common foods that are generally considered to be safe: milk, wheat, aspartame, monosodium glutamate or food that isn’t organic. Related images tell us that should we ever find ourselves suffering from this terrible condition, the cures are sitting right under our noses in the forms of green tea, turmeric and “sour sop” fruit. Obviously the reason we don’t find these cancer “cures” being used in hospitals is due to some heartless corporate executive who wants to maintain the profit spread between cancer-causing and cancer-curing foods.

Is there even an iota of truth in any of these memes? The technically correct answer is “at the time of writing, virtually no claim regarding a significant carcinogenic or anti-cancer effect from normal consumption of a generally-regarded-as-safe food is true”. Of course, the technically correct answer doesn’t capture the absurdity behind entire premise here.

Taken together, these memes would have us believe that a cartel of dairy farmers, sugar plantation owners and beverage makers along with “Big Pharma”, the FDA and the entire government take part in a bi-weekly 8am conference call where they discuss clever new ways to carry out their agenda of suppressing the good mangosteen producers of the world. At the end of the call they run back to their offices inside Skull Mountain and The Fortress of Doom, where they gleefully stroke their handlebar mustaches as they direct the distribution of products to promote a single, well-defined disease we call “cancer”. Their ultimate goal, of course, is to enjoy watching people suffer unimaginably in front of their parents, children and siblings.

A mindset that would accept the scenario I have just described as plausible needs to be informed about some other basic truths of the world, like the one about the existence of Santa Claus. These sorts of claims about cancer aren’t merely lies, they are flat out fibs with about as much truth as the proposition that there are monsters under one’s bed. These memes ignore the complex etiology behind a diverse set of diseases and maliciously propagate ignorance of our basic understanding of chemistry, biology and physics. You don’t have to be a professional scientist to ferret out such lies; you just need to be able to tell when someone is trying to con you. Diagnostic markers can often be found in the meme text e.g., prominent quotes with conveniently missing/incomplete references to primary sources (“new study shows that eating dandelions reduces cancer rates by 25%”), a general tone of paranoia (“the secret that cancer doctors don’t want you to know”) as well as very little information with regard to exposure amounts (we are all exposed to carcinogens everyday; the key question when it comes to safety is “how much?”).

While diet certainly contributes to health and cancer susceptibility, there is no evidence that any common and generally available food (“processed”, organic or otherwise) is known to directly cause cancer when consumed in normal, realistic volumes. Similarly, not a single cancer “home-remedy” is part of any therapy that a patient would receive in a hospital today. Even though ongoing studies have taken a close look at a number of home-remedies with some positive preliminary results, no one has found the miraculous curative effects that are often claimed as truth by self-professed practitioners of “alternative medicine”. Government agencies and hospitals who are tasked with improving cancer survival rates and delivering patient care have clearly stated positions that reflect this general sentiment:

So what is the harm if someone wants to drink 10 cups of green tea a day in an attempt to cure or at least prevent a potentially devastating disease? Perhaps there would be none, but when it comes to understanding what really works and what doesn’t, we need to be honest and critical with ourselves so that we can clearly identify underlying causes and therapies that could improve the quality of life and survival rates for patients.

Honest and critical thinking is what has led to the established body of evidence that clearly shows how things like smoking, alcohol (both of which are, sadly, sold in grocery stores), certain viruses and sun exposure are clearly implicated in cancer. Modern medicine is not a panacea when it comes to overall rates of cancer mortality and there is a seldom-discussed cynicism amongst scientists when they reflect on the rate at which new medicines are being discovered (and the funding structure of that entire process). Even so, certain cancer types have enjoyed very significant increases in survival rates (e.g., colon, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and breast) since the mid-1970’s. We would have never realized such improvements if we decided to look at cancer through the lens of pseudoscience.

Boy, it’s hard to write about cancer without thinking about loved ones who I’ve seen suffer dearly at its hand…

Update(06/25/2013): Comments on In The Pipeline inform me that excitotoxicity is a real phenomenon (I was unaware of the precise neurobiological definition), so I should be a little less bugged about cells being “excited to death”; of course, this has nothing to do with dietary intake of glutamate (which the meme implies). Many of these memes use similar tricks, referring to something that is true in a specific technical context but has nothing to do with underlying message they are trying to send.

Update(06/25/2013): Applied a reasonably easy fix to the offending speech bubble.

4 thoughts on “Viral Cancer Cure Conspiracies”

  1. Actually,
    excitotoxicity is a thing and (monosodium) glutamate is well documented to cause it. However, only when directly applied to neurons. Furthermore, glutamate is found in all sorts of foods from beef to tomatoes, so it’s a little ridiculous to claim that just eating it will kill your brain. I realize the latter part is the argument you’re trying to make, but rejecting excitotoxicity out of hand is irresponsible.

  2. Yes many people have (correctly) pointed out that the meme is referring to the very real phenomenon of glutamate excitotoxicity (not sure if you saw the update at the bottom of the post, where I also link to the wikipedia entry). A similar perspective also makes the cancer growth statement true. Neither of these things has anything to do with dietary intake of glutamate.

  3. Thanks – this is really good. I’ll be pointing a bunch of people at this.

    There’s a “missing meme”, or an ignored one. For years, big tobacco did misinform, and created action groups funded by tobacco to misdirect and preserve their businesses; tobacco products have subsequently been strongly implicated with both cancer and with addiction. For a long time you had to work very hard to find any non-controversial and reasonable evidence of either effect as a result of the obfuscation.

    And in the UK, we had government ministers assuring us that a new prion disease (Mad Cow disease – VCJD) wasn’t transferable to humans. Then we found out that it was. I had a blood transfer in the US at a time when HIV testing was not enforced (an emergency appendectomy) – I still can’t give blood in the UK, as a result. But the impact of untested blood was minimised in public information services.

    There are times when industry and government lie, or are at least working with an “economy of truth”. If you don’t have (and most consumers don’t) access to real scientific papers and good understanding of the terminology and statistics (and most people don’t) it’s easy to get mislead. And the companies that do mislead appear able to operate with relative impunity – in part because our legislative processes haven’t caught up with use of the internet (hosting websites or delivering products from overseas can avoid many of the protections).

    So, thanks, but I’d love to see a more complete story covering how to understand whether these false messages are real, not just an assurance that everything that industry and government says, must be trusted completely. Sometimes there actually are conspiracies, and sometimes there are pieces of inadequate advice, and sometimes those affect whole populations. 🙂

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      I think the examples of VCJD and tobacco are good ones, how do we know when to trust organizations that we expect to be trustworthy? Why do such organizations obfuscate facts sometimes? Is it deliberate or an outcome of incomplete knowledge? People in a position of authority, legitimate looking junk science papers and sophisticated fabrications can easily obscure the truth.
      I obviously don’t have any real answers past sharing information, engaging in critical discussions and testing outcomes against predictions. We can still get caught by a lie after all that, but I am not sure if an infallible strategy that guarantees against that outcome exists.
      I sincerely believe that most of us have the capacity (given the appropriate background education) to refute the types of fibs we see in the comic, there are obviously more difficult cases where the answers are harder to find.

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