Cancer isn’t just a danger to us; it is an ever-present cause of misery and hardship. According to the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, there are approximately 439 new cases of cancer per 100,000 individuals each year in the US (NIH 2018). Even I am not immune to Cancer’s reach, as my mother was diagnosed several years ago with Stage II Breast Cancer. It should be no surprise then, that many people want answers. It’s no easy thing to see your loved one suffer, struggle, and then die. As technological miracles surround us, it isn’t necessarily crazy for the typical person to wonder “Why haven’t we cured cancer already?”.
In response, some will say “they already have.”
This “some” is a place holder for a conspiracy theorist that believes that “Big Pharma” and occasionally just the US’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are repressing a cure for cancer. According to Blaskiewicz (2013), Big Pharma comprises not just corporations, but also physicians, regulators, and politicians as well as anyone who makes money from Pharmaceuticals. However, all of these separate parties get surmised into one super evil entity, “Big Pharma.” Furthermore, that Big Pharma is suppressing a currently found cancer cure so that it might financially benefit off of the “ineffective” treatments currently given to those afflicted with the disease. (Blaskiewicz 2013) There isn’t an exact date that one can point to as the start of this conspiracy theory, but it still is popular within the past decade, as in 2005 at least 27.3% of surveyed Americans believed in the myth of a hidden cancer cure (Gansler et al. 2005). This percentage underpins the idea that believers could be relatively any average American considering the prevalence of cancer. Indeed, the reason this belief is extraordinary is several- fold: first, if true, would mean that a massive amount of human suffering would be happening as a result of gross malfeasance. Second, that many people, estimated at the barest minimum to be 714,000 people at multiple companies, would have to keep a secret from the whole world for who knows how long (Berezow 2016). Finally, it would fundamentally change the way we understand cancer, which comprises nearly 100 different diseases, and how it functions (NIH 2015).
However, what would bring someone, anyone, to the idea that some treatment is being kept from them? Blaskiewicz (2013) contends that there may be real problems that underlie the belief. Cancer treatments are often invasive, painful, and may fail to work on an individual level. Caregivers can be forced to watch someone wither away while others yet may live. Though the mortality rate of Americans due to cancer has been declining since the 1990s (NIH 2018), what good does that do to someone who just lost a child to liver cancer? Others still cite the money to be gained in the Pharmaceutical Industry or the “competition” that might occur if a single cancer cure was effective at treatment (Novella & Barrett 2000). While it’s true that Pharmaceuticals are a trillion-dollar industry (Blaskiewicz 2013), getting into the meat of this evidence for the theory, primarily pointing to capitalism itself, brings into focus more pieces of evidence against it.
If we’re going to argue that capitalism is what’s driving companies and others who stand to “make a profit” off of not curing cancer, let’s talk money. As Curtin (2018) points out, 600,000 dead patients mean that many less paying customers for Big Pharma. Were humans to live longer, we’d need more medical attention, more pills, more doctor visits, and more money to
pay for all of it (Curtin 2018). Big Pharma would lose out on all of the profit in the long term, which intelligent businesspeople would recognize. We also have past evidence of the mechanisms of Big Pharma fighting against a situation that would be similar to the use of ineffective cancer cure known as the Heparin contaminant crisis. In this case, a Chinese supplier of the chemical Heparin, normally costing $900, contaminated it with another mimicking chemical that cost only $9. (Berezow 2016) When the side effects of the drug started harming, even killing people, the FDA created new control methods to prevent harm by the end of 2009 (Berezow 2016). It would have been far more “beneficial” in the conspiracy’s logic to Big Pharma to sell the drug, as usual, profit off of the price difference, and profit off of the resulting damage. The FDA responded quickly effectively to the crisis, even though the recall caused a massive shortage (Berezow 2016, Dunning 2017).
As we move away from capitalistic motivations and return to the original parts of the belief that make it extraordinary, more damning pieces of evidence also return. First, the entire of Big Pharma as a coordinating, gigantic, evil monolithic entity is nearly impossible. I previously mentioned that the minimum requirement for this conspiracy was well over 700,000 people (Berezow 2016), and if this is the case, how is the secret kept? Rarely are any of the nearly 600 publicly traded pharma companies working together, and who wouldn’t brag about curing cancer? (Wakefield 2018) Moreover, not every single person involved in cancer research would gain by having a “cure” kept secret. Many academics would kill to land the Nobel prize associated with such a discovery and aren’t seeking financial compensation for the discovery (Curtin 2018). However, if that were not enough, are many of those supposed conspirators also touched by cancer? Are scientists, politicians, lobbyists and more immune to it (Curtin 2018)? Certainly not. Besides, the notion of a “single cure” originates in a misunderstanding of cancer as well as the scientific treatments being researched to fight it (Wakefield 2018). Each cancer case is unique in its way, and trying to nail down similarities can be difficult, which is why there is a large variety in the official number of cancer types (Wakefield 2018). Cures by the nature of the disease cannot be one size fits all.
It is important to remember that we cannot be unkind to those who believe in this conspiracy. Many cognitive factors contribute to this belief. It is possible that this belief comes out of a desire to impose order on an uncaring and random world (Blaskiewicz 2013). Often, when individuals fall into this conspiracy theory, Cognitive Dissonance kicks in because they turn to ineffective alternative medicines that they believe Big Pharma is suppressing. When one chooses to go for alternative methods, refusing another treatment is difficult to undo, and the death of their loved ones would refute this belief unequivocally. Considering how many other people also have cancer and feel powerless, there would be an active community of support and an inability to ignore what has happened. Also, there can be a reasonable degree of post hoc thinking that goes into this belief. The fact that one “cure” was ineffective means that there must be some other cure, some magic bullet that will be.
Ultimately, the social context for this extraordinary belief is truly sadder than most. Most if not all believers come to this community out of pain and loss. They want answers, and they find them in the extraordinary. Once they become surrounded by the sorrows of others and a disbelief in the authority of modern science, they drift farther away. This community can be isolating and dangerous, as who is to say what a theorizing caregiver would do when another family member gets cancer, or even they get cancer?
People who believe that Big Pharma is out to get them are often sustained by a post hoc rationalization of tragedy and a large amount of cognitive dissonance in pursuing alternative medicine when current treatments have failed them. They wish to understand what is going on but are unable. I hope that if one should ever cross someone who believes this theory, that you and I can give them compassion, and engage them in a way that helps them and others like them heal.
Berezow, A. (2016, June 11). Proof There’s No FDA-Big Pharma Conspiracy Suppressing Cancer Cures. Retrieved from https://www.acsh.org/news/2016/06/11/proof-that-there-is-no-fda-big- pharma-conspiracy-to-suppress-cancer-cures
Blaskiewicz, R. (2013). The Big Pharma conspiracy theory. Medical Writing,22(4), 259-261. doi:10.1179/2047480613z.000000000142
Curtin, I. (2018, February 15). Is it time to give Big Pharma a big break? Retrieved from https://www.rte.ie/eile/brainstorm/2018/0214/940672-is-it-time-to-give-big-pharma-a-big-break/
Dunning, B. (2017, September 19). The Big Pharma Conspiracy. Retrieved from
Gansler, T. , Henley, S. J., Stein, K. , Nehl, E. J., Smigal, C. and Slaughter, E. (2005), Sociodemographic determinants of cancer treatment health literacy. Cancer, 104: 653-660. doi:10.1002/cncr.21194
NIH. (2015, February 9). What Is Cancer? Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about- cancer/understanding/what-is-cancer#types-of-cancer
NIH. (2018, April 27). Cancer Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about- cancer/understanding/statistics
Novella, S., & Barrett, S. (2000, June 22). Is There a Conspiracy to Suppress Cancer Cures? Retrieved from https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/Cancer/conspiracy.html
Wakefield, A. (2018, September 24). Secret cancer cure – is Big Pharma hiding it from us? Retrieved from https://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/secret-cancer-cure-big- pharma-hiding/