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Scam Artists Prey on Cancer Patients

Oct 1, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Cancer patients often look to the Internet for emerging trends in cancer treatment, but  many are duped by scams that promise so-called "cures" that are anything but, say experts.  Just last month, five companies were charged with making false and misleading claims; settlements were reached with six other companies, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced.

The companies marketed products that included essiac teas and other herbal mixtures, laetrile, black salve—which is a corrosive ointment—and mushroom extracts.  "There is no credible scientific evidence that any of the products marketed by these companies can prevent, cure, or treat cancer of any kind," said Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, the Associated Press reported.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warning letters to two dozen companies that were selling alleged cures, including cure-all teas, tablets, and tonics.  Earlier this year, over 100 manufacturers of such products were issued similar letters.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, black salves are one of the most dangerous of these fake cures and are marketed with the claim that they "draw out" the disease from under the skin.  In fact, they can actually burn the skin and cause scarring.  And, while some of the compounds do have potential as cancer fighters, consumers are alerted to be cautious.  "Many of these compounds touted as having beneficial effects have lots of lab research, but it's more selling hope in a jar based on preliminary lab research," said Sarah Wally, a nutritionist with the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. "That's not fair to the consumer, particularly consumers with cancer who have a really strong motivation to try anything that might offer hope."

Wally warns that while many so-called treatments and cures might not cause harm, they can be costly and can interact with supervised treatment.  "Antioxidants can actually interfere with chemotherapy and radiation treatment," she said. "Some people think, 'I'm just drinking juice.' But they might be drinking two gallons of juice a day of super-antioxidant juice compound, not thinking to discuss it with their doctor."  Also, some patients might avoid traditional life-saving treatment for the tempting scams.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," said Dr. Ted Gansler, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society.  Look out for claims that one treatment will cure all cancers or multiple disease; for language such as "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient" and "ancient remedy"; claims that a product is "natural" and therefore safe; and claims that the product has limited availability and advanced payment is required.

Find out if the product has been tested in humans.  While laboratory and animal research is fine, it is just a start and not a basis for recommending the therapy in humans, Wally said.  Also, "Be careful about the credentials of the people promoting the treatment," Gansler said. "The possibility that someone with no medical or scientific treatment is going to come up with a cure for cancer or other diseases is not very likely." Reliable sources of information include the American Cancer Society, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.


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