April 7, 2003
A Primer on Spotting Cancer Treatment Scams
Teresa Tarnowski Goodell, RN, CNS, CS
Many people with cancer seek out alternative or complementary therapies in their quest for more effective, less toxic methods of cancer treatment. These treatments range widely in their intended purposes, effectiveness, costs, and side effects. The recommendations of traditional and alternative or complementary practitioners range from gentler treatments like acupuncture, imagery and massage to potentially dangerous, unproven methods that may interfere with or delay the use of proven therapies. Some alternative and complementary cancer therapies have undergone scientific testing and proven themselves quite useful. Others have not, and some may even be harmful. Separating the good from the bad is not a simple matter.
There is an abundance of information available to the health care consumer via the Internet, government publications, alternative and complementary therapy publications, various types of health care practitioners, and many other sources. Some traditional (western or allopathic) health care providers have strong opinions about the worthiness of non-traditional medicine, and alternative or complementary practitioners may decry traditional therapy as too toxic or ineffective. Sorting out the truth in the midst of personal opinion and information overload can be a daunting task for the cancer patient and family. This article is intended to outline some tips for spotting questionable cancer treatments and, perhaps, help patients avoid the adverse financial and health consequences that can be caused by them.
First, be sure your reasons for seeking out the alternative or complementary treatment are clear. Is it because you are afraid of side effects of traditional therapy? Often, newer treatments for cancer are less toxic than older treatments, so be sure you are informed about the real risks of traditional therapy before deciding against it. As with any disease, getting the facts is foremost. This holds true for both traditional treatment and alternative or complementary treatment.
Second, is the alternative or complementary health care provider able to describe the treatment fully in terms you understand? Questions to consider asking are: Why does it work? How is it different from traditional treatment? How many patients with your type of cancer have been treated this way, and what were their results? Have any scientific studies been done? What were the results? How long will treatment last? What results can you expect? What side effects can you expect? Regardless of the type of treatment you choose, any health care provider should be eager and willing to fully inform you, and your family, about your choices.
Third, scam therapies sometimes piggyback themselves onto proven therapies, using evidence for the proven therapy to bolster their own claims. Be wary of such tactics. For example, practitioners of an unproven cancer therapy may claim, "Our alternative treatment (Therapy X) is a lot like (proven) Therapy Y, only ours is different, which makes it better." If Therapy X is different, does the research on Therapy Y really apply? How do they know Therapy X is better (or even as good) if it is different from Therapy Y?
Fourth, find out specifically what conditions can be treated with the alternative or complementary therapy. The complexity of the human body and its diseases means that there are few treatments that work for a great variety of conditions. Promoters of cancer therapy scams may claim that their therapy works for nearly every type of cancer and perhaps many non-cancer conditions. In reality, most legitimate methods of treatment apply to a relatively small number of cancers, or perhaps to only one form of a certain cancer.
Fifth, be certain to inform all your health care providers of all your treatments. If you choose alternative or complementary treatment while continuing traditional treatment, be sure both providers know what the other is doing. While there is limited scientific information on the interactions between alternative or complementary treatments and traditional treatments, this knowledge is slowly growing, and it may be very important for each practitioner to know about the other's treatment regimen. All of your health care providers should be interested in knowing about other treatments you are undergoing.
Finally, it is a sad fact that some health care practitioners are willing to enhance their own pocketbooks at the expense of innocent people who seek their advice and assistance. Find out if the alternative or complementary cancer therapy can be covered by insurance, and if there is help submitting claims or making payments over time for the therapy. Sometimes, insurers will cover alternative or complementary treatments, and it may well be worth your time to discuss it with your insurance company. Always find out what the therapy will cost you. And consider additional expenses such as travel and transportation, additional medicines, or housing that you may incur. Occasionally, providers require payment of large sums of money up front, before treatment is begun. Ask yourself whether this demand is reasonable, or whether it signals a lack of concern for you and your family's financial well-being.
Regardless of what type of health care provider you see, it is wise to write down a list of questions and mark them off as they are answered. Everyone tends to forget their questions when they are in an examining room! You won't look foolish if you do this; you will look well-informed and proactive in tending to your health care, and any trustworthy health care provider will appreciate your being involved in and informed about your disease and treatment.