There was renewed media attention in the past few weeks to the controversial work of Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, a Texas-based clinician who claims to have discovered naturally occurring peptides in the human body that he says control the growth of cancer. The attention was prompted by a remarkable post by Rhys Morgan, a young blogger who says someone calling themselves a clinic representative threatened legal action after Mr. Morgan posted what even he called “a rather scathing blog” on how the unproven technique was being marketed to desperate parents.
The story was then picked up by reporter Craig Malisow at the Houston Press, who minced no words in telling the story.
This turn of events prompts a larger question about the challenge we in health communications often face: how do you help people understand what to believe in a world filled with conflicting claims? We turned to Ted Gansler, M.D., the American Cancer Society’s director of medical content and editor of one of our peer-review journals, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians for comment. Ted has spent years working to find ways to educate people facing cancer, with these sorts of claims being an area of particular interest.
“We can explain the facts, as we do on our website and in our book about Complementary and Alternative Methods (CAM), but there is a substantial segment of the population who believe Burzynski is telling the truth and we are lying.
“In 2005, I co-authored a study about Americans’ beliefs in a host of cancer myths. We found more than one in four U.S. adults thinks there is a conspiracy to hide the cancer cure. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that some people facing a serious disease such as cancer can be misled by practitioners who promote their treatments as innovative, cutting-edge research, but who actually deliver care that is based on decades old hypotheses that still remain unproven and implausible.
“What’s hopeful about media coverage of the current story is that many journalists seem less afraid to portray the tactics that some supporters of Dr. Burzynski use to suppress rational public discussion of scientific evidence. Those one in four adults believing in a hidden cancer cure may not read information on cancer.org or on websites of other credible medical and scientific organizations, but they do pay attention to press accounts. Physicians, scientists, and journalists have an obligation to point out that such practitioners are not heroic geniuses. Practitioners who ignore or distort scientific evidence are, at best, extremely misguided and ignorant, and it is reasonable to wonder whether some are knowingly acting contrary to the best interests of their patients.
“Finally, although 25% of the general public thinks there is a hidden cancer cure, once people are diagnosed and start speaking with their doctors about treatment, extremely few reject mainstream evidence-based oncology to seek unproven treatments that practitioners claim are more effective than those offered in leading cancer centers.”