Snake oil and cancer care

By | Wed August 2, 2017

I have found myself reflecting a lot lately on how one can tell the difference between internet sites / social media posts that are sharing ‘snake oil’ versus those that are sharing legitimate treatment information.

When I talk about ‘snake oil’, I’m talking about alternative treatments that are in no way proven, but more importantly are intended to generate a profit on the backs of those who are seeking hope.

I find myself asking, what are the signs (keywords or phrases) that identify something as snake oil?

I don’t have a clear answer for that. When I hear of alternative treatments that “have no side effects”, that in part is red flag for me. When I hear of alternative treatments that “cure cancer”, that is a red flag for me. Especially in the case of breast cancer, where the word “cure” doesn’t really make sense – we go into “remission”, we don’t get cured. We won’t know if we were cured until we die of something else – but alas, that is an aside.

When I talk about snake oil, I’m generally not talking about ‘complementary therapies’ – generally. In many cases complementary therapies – given in conjunction with conventional medicine – are not the same as alternative therapies that are given instead of conventional medicine.

I’m connected to a lot of people who are active on social media in the breast cancer community. I see a lot of different things cross my stream. I find myself looking at them, and often discounting them as snake oil. Things that are clearly intended to extract money from the hands of already cash strapped and desperate cancer patients. But I also see things that might actually be helpful. Things that do reduce side effects. So how do you tell them apart?

The other challenge I have is in the desire to respect people’s decision to seek the treatment they want, at the same time as not being judgmental, especially when I see the treatments being discussed as pure snake oil. I can see something and think to myself ‘that looks like snake oil’, but I cannot always know that it is 100% true.

I’d love to be able to teach cancer patients how to recognize the snake oil, but I’m not sure I have a way to do that. I cannot say for certain that western medicine is 100% correct – we have a lot of information that we share in support groups that help us deal with side effects that are not “proven” by western medicine. Those things are not ‘snake oil’.

I guess for me, the biggest red flag is money. If someone is asking money for something, then it is suspect. Paying money for scans that your doctors don’t believe are necessary, or paying for expensive dietary supplements seem to me to not be authentic. They raise flags as ‘snake oil’ which can do more harm than good. But is money the only thing that triggers the red flag? What other things might be signs that the alternative treatment is bogus? What do you think?

One thought on “Snake oil and cancer care

  1. Beth Gainer

    Great post, Becky! I think many people selling snake oil just want to make a profit from someone’s suffering from breast cancer. As you said, there is no cure, and it infuriates me when people tell us to have a certain diet or take a certain over the counter supplement in order to cure cancer. These sellers of snake oil do more harm than good.

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