Why keeping the cure for cancer secret is implausible and dumb
“Is it true that Big Pharma hides the cure for cancer?”, “Are conspirators keeping the cure for cancer secret?” You cannot imagine how often you get to answer these types of questions once you reveal yourself as a scientist, especially if you work with cancer. I’ve learned to see these questions coming from kilometers (miles) away – and FYI, they are not directly correlated with alcohol consumption.
The short answer is “NO”, but that’s usually not enough to convince anyone. So, here I list four reasons why the secret cancer cure claims are implausible (not probable). And, you know what? I’ll throw in a bonus at the end where we’ll discuss why these conspiracy theories arise and how you can battle them. Alright.
The mathematical reason: Cancer is not one disease
Let’s start by exposing the mathematical fallacy: “they’re hiding the cure for cancer from you”. The premise of the argument suggests the existence of ONE hidden cure that could treat ONE disease. And the confusion starts.
I see why you’d think of cancer as one disease, just like, for instance, malaria, salmonella, or AIDS. Things would’ve been so much easier that way, without a doubt.
one disease + one treatment = cured
But unfortunately, that pseudo-mathematical formula is flawed, and cancer is not one disease. Instead, cancer describes a group of diseases; it’s an umbrella term that defines uncontrolled, continuous growth of abnormal cells in the body. Cancer is a condition that affects different cell types or tissues, a condition that is caused by different factors and has different genetic characteristics (or mutations).
For example, compare leukemia and breast cancer. Both are cancers, but one is blood cancer, and the other one is… well, you know… breast cancer. And not only do the two diseases affect different tissues, but they also carry different genetic mutations – in different genes.
Truth is that with more than 100 different types of human cancers, we’d need to develop various treatment strategies, specific to the cancer type, and many times combined with other treatments.
So, rather than drawing parallels between cancer and diseases like malaria, salmonella, or AIDS, from now on, compare it to the more general terms parasites, bacteria, or viruses. Each independent organism, inside its respective umbrella, needs a specific treatment. [Where’s the cure for the virus?]
The money reason: Who wouldn’t want to patent the cure for cancer?
This next argument falls short on its logical weakness, and it’s the one claiming that “the reason Big Pharma hides the cure for cancer is… MONEY!” The idea is that as long as the cure for cancer is hidden, patients will be dependent on Big Pharma’s palliative (symptom-relieving) treatments for life.
I’ll share some of my thoughts on this topic, and I’m far from a business expert. Still, even this fragile little business mind cannot add up this inconsistency. What company in its right mind wouldn’t want to possess a pill full of magic that cures cancer, a group of diseases that will probably never vanish?
Let’s, for a moment, imagine a nifty researcher in a classic white lab coat, finally discovering that one and only cancer treatment that could cure and save millions of people. [keep in mind that this is not a real-case scenario, let’s just pretend for the sake of the premise].
You can see that eureka-moment in front of you, can’t you? The victorious feeling, and the extended moment of glory that follows. The researcher raises the little pill between the index finger and the thumb and proudly gaze at the outcome. [that’s not how it works, but let’s keep pretending for a moment]
With a newfound upright spine and a blown-up chest, the researcher approaches the CEO of Big Pharma [still fiction] and presents his discovery: the cure of all cures. The CEO leans forward on his desk, looks at the pill (again between the index finger and thumb of the researcher), while he wipes his left side of the mouth to rid the saliva instinctively secreted upon the presentation. He looks at the researcher, they share a silent moment. Total silence. Finally, the CEO collects his courage and clear his throat:
“Nah. Hide it. I don’t want to make money that way.” And together, they go to the forest to bury the little magic pill next to an old oak tree. The end.
Well, no! That’s not how it plays out, but I can see what triggers these thoughts. People tend to think of cancer the same way you’d think of parasites, viruses, or bacteria, and that we’ve been successful in treating some of these. Heck, we eradicated smallpox in the 70s and are underway eradicating malaria.
But that’s based on loose ideas and fiction. Instead, I invite you to look at it differently. Curing people with cancer doesn’t mean eradicating the disease. Cancer diseases are either inherited or caused by cancer-causing factors like sunlight, viruses, smoke, chemicals. You cannot eliminate the sun. Cancers will be prevalent in our lives; they will haunt every generation to come in one way or another. And you’re telling me you have a curing remedy with constant demand, a non-exhausting trump card, and Holy Grail that you want to keep a secret?
Not a chance…
The competitive reason: Don’t forget that Big Pharma is not a company
The name is catchy, and the idea is compelling – who doesn’t enjoy a juicy conspiracy theory. People love teasing their fears, imagining that a powerful and malevolent elite keeps a secret plot, so precious, that could save lives if exposed to the public. But the fact is that Big Pharma is merely a collective definition of the largest pharmaceutical companies. You can be for or against the private drug industry, it doesn’t matter in this case. These companies are hungry for one thing above all; like Barrett Strong, they want MONEY (that’s what they want).
I don’t know if they have secret meetings between pharmaceutical companies or any cartel-like behaviors (I might investigate that in the future). But I imagine that as soon as one of these companies get their paws on that magic cancer cure, with the potential to earn money from it – and I’m talking big bucks – they’ll keep that deal for themselves. No brothers in arms no more.
The overwhelming and emotional reasons: Too many participants and they’ll all get affected by cancer, one way or another. Who’d keep the cure for cancer secret?
This point could also easily be labeled “the sentimental reason”, and it’s a reason that most people miss to think about, no matter the conspiracy. And yet, the answer is right in front of you every day; your friends and family. The Achille’s heel of the cancer cure conspiracy theory is the scope of cancer, which almost guarantees that the disease will affect anybody, whether it’s directly or indirectly.
While some scientists might consider themselves invincible or immortal (in their ivory tower), most of them have friends and/or family. The same is true for the upper management of big pharmaceutical companies. At one point or another in life, most of these individuals will, unfortunately, have a dear one affected by cancer. And, hey, what if they themselves get cancer? If a group of conspirators would be trying to hide the cure for cancer, are you telling me they’d be persuasive enough to convince all these affected people – and even themselves – to shut the eff up no matter what? Suicidal tendencies, anyone? As a researcher, CEO, or doctor, you’d have to be quite convinced and committed to keeping the secret going.
Why do people still believe in the cure for cancer conspiracy?
Sure, we’ve now seen several excellent arguments discrediting the cure for cancer conspiracy; super. But the key questions that can eradicate this fallacy once and for all remain unanswered, namely, “why do these conspiracy theories arise?” and “how do we battle them?”
Why do these conspiracy theories arise?
In a publication from 2017, Douglas et al. reviewed various psychological studies to identify the factors that may trigger the creation and popularity of conspiracy theories. They conclude that these beliefs stem from the “promise to satisfy important social psychological motives that can be characterized as epistemic (e.g., the desire for understanding, accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g., the desire for control and security), and social (e.g., the desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group).”
When we don’t understand our surroundings, we still try to find explanations based on the (often) limited information that we have. A somewhat credible explanation can offer temporary relief to lean on when we don’t understand.
Now, to partially understand the cure for cancer conspiracy, we can glance at other diseases and their treatments. Science has “blessed” us with antibiotics and vaccinations to battle and even eradicated certain conditions (regionally and globally), think polio and smallpox. So then, why can’t we eliminate one of our biggest problems, one of the most common causes of death globally? You want answers, and you want them now!
Requiring quick answers attract pseudoscientific characters that are lurking around the corner – or actually, they’ll attract you. Because while accusing Big Pharma, in collusion with scientific researchers, of hiding the cure for cancer for the dirty money, guess who’s probably selling you something? It can be books, events, or esoteric healing. We’ve written a post about five common traits of pseudoscience (fake science), you can read it here.
Of course, ignorance, control, and conspiracy theorists explain one part of the issue, because like it or not, the pharmaceutical industry has done a pretty crap job on their reputation. When I started thinking about a possible career in the private sector after my PhD, most people wondered how I’d feel working for the devil. Huh? How come that reputation, and how does it impact their credibility?
How do we battle these conspiracy theories?
Just like with pseudoscience, conspiracy theories contain elegantly built stories disguised in lab coats. Because although fighting against scientific consensus, these stories impress on the elaborate “evidence-based” arguments. The stories are captivating, convincing, and somewhat confusing. And this attracts.
So, how do you fight these? With better stories. We have a full blog post about fighting pseudoscience with better stories that you can read here. In short, crushing the dogma of a conspiracy theory believer with data and other evidence will do no good. You’re breaking someone’s reality, which will inevitably elicit a counter reaction (sometimes aggressive).
You need to plant a seed. We learned that from Michael Dahlstrom, PhD, at the EMBL 20th EMBL Science and Society Conference Science as Storytelling: From Facts to Fiction. In short, we don’t want to fight or debunk pseudoscientific stories; we want to replace them with new, better, and scientifically accurate narratives.
Now it’s time to gather all the information presented here and make a colorful story out of it.
Fun fact (for me at least): The massive amounts of times that I’ve answered questions about a supposedly hidden cure for cancer is one of the key reasons I started this blog together with my good friend Michael a while back. I finally posted it.
Anyway, next time we’ll go back to talk a bit about the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. Last time we wrote about the R0 of COVID-19, this time, we’ll look at the disease in specific parts of the population. Or about toilet paper. We’ll see.
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Featured image was created by Eric Pintó