Beware of Online Cancer Fraud

While health fraud is a cruel form of greed, fraud involving cancer treatments can be particularly heartless—especially because fraudulent information can travel around the Web in an instant.

"Anyone who suffers from cancer, or knows someone who does, understands the fear and desperation that can set in," says Gary Coody, R.Ph., the National Health Fraud Coordinator and a Consumer Safety Officer with the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Office of Regulatory Affairs. "There can be a great temptation to jump at anything that appears to offer a chance for a cure."

Medicinal products and devices intended to treat cancer must gain FDA approval before they are marketed. The agency's review process helps ensure that these products are safe and effective.

Nevertheless, it's always possible to find someone or some company hawking bogus cancer "treatments." Such "treatments" come in many forms, including pills, tonics, and creams. "They're frequently offered as natural treatments and 'dietary supplements,'" says Coody. Many of these fraudulent cancer products even appear completely harmless, but may cause indirect harm by delaying or interfering with proven, beneficial treatments.

"Advertisements and other promotional materials touting bogus cancer 'cures' have probably been around as long as the printing press," says Coody. "However, the Internet has compounded the problem by providing the peddlers of these often dangerous products a whole new outlet."

Unproven 'Remedies,' False Promises

Coody cites black salves as one of the fake cancer "remedies" that indeed have proven to be harmful. "Although it is illegal to market these salves as a cancer treatment, they are readily available online," he says.

The salves are sold with false promises that they will cure cancer by "drawing out" the disease from beneath the skin. "However, there is no scientific evidence that black salves are effective," says Janet Woodcock, Director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). "Even worse, black salves can cause direct harm to the patient."

The corrosive, oily salves "essentially burn off layers of the skin and surrounding normal tissue," says Woodcock. "This is not a simple, painless process. There are documented cases of these salves destroying large parts of people's skin and underlying tissue, leaving terrible scars."

Another unproven "remedy" that has been hawked for decades is an herbal regimen known as the Hoxsey Cancer Treatment. "FDA has taken regulatory and enforcement action against this discredited course of therapy beginning in the 1950s," says Coody.

"There is no scientific evidence that it has any value to treat cancer," he adds. "Yet consumers can go online right now and find all sorts of false claims that Hoxsey treatment is effective against the disease."

Red Flags

Coody says that firms engaged in cancer treatment or prevention fraud often use exaggerated and bogus claims to promote these products. He adds that consumers should recognize the following phrases as red flags:

"Unproven claims are also found in unverified testimonials, research results, or even in product and website names," says Coody. He offers important points that consumers seeking cancer treatments should keep in mind:

"There are legal ways for patients to access investigational drugs," says Coody. "The most common way is by taking part in clinical trials. But patients can also receive investigational drugs outside of clinical trials in some cases." For more details on this, visit

Agencies Take Action

FDA and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in collaboration with other North American government agencies, have announced a new initiative to prevent these deceptive products from reaching consumers. Coody says that as part of the joint campaign, FDA and FTC have sent approximately 135 warning letters and two advisory letters to firms that market these products online.

The initiative originated not only from consumer complaints, he says, but also from a Web surf for fraudulent cancer products by FDA and members of the Mexico-United States-Canada Health fraud working group (MUCH).

Signs of Health Fraud

All consumers seeking information about any health product or medical treatment should be familiar with the following signs of health fraud:

For Further Information

This article was posted on June 18, 2008.

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