Cancer Therapy Ads Hide the Truth


If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That’s an old maxim that applies to a lot in life – and especially to cancer treatment advertising.

Cancer patients are among our most vulnerable consumers. The diagnosis of cancer sends shock waves through our systems and we desperately want to hear there is a solution to our disease. Cancer treatment centers take advantage of that desperation.

Steve Salerno, writing in The Wall Street Journal, gives us the unfortunate truth behind many of those cancer center advertisements that sound – well, just too good to be true. By 2020 the treatment of cancer is expected to generate $207 Billion in medical bills. That’s a lot of incentive for those in the cancer treatment industry.

The Annuals of Internal Medicine published a study of cancer treatment advertising in 2014 and found that they relied on emotional appeals evoking hope or fear, while pointedly omitting useful information. “Eighty-eight percent touted treatments and only 18 percent mentioned screening, even though early diagnosis is more critical to survival than the interventions romanticized on TV. Risks appear in barely 2% of ads.”

Typical ads include testimonials, sometimes featuring celebrities. “Natural” remedies are often mentioned to tap into the growing cachet of alternative medicine. Such ads prompted urology oncologist, Dr. Benjamin Davies, to write in Forbes, “Eating a balanced (organic?) diet after your prostate cancer surgery has no effect on your cancer outcome. None. Suggesting it is part of ‘the plan’ insinuates it will. It will not.”

Dr. Steven Woloshin, a medical communication researcher, wrote an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) describing his view of these cancer center advertisements: “The appeals raise the stakes, in essence saying you can be saved provided you make the right choice or doomed if you do not.”

Cancer treatment centers are big business. In the decade from 2005 to 2015, ad spending by U.S. cancer centers climbed from $54 million to $173 million. Cancer Treatment Centers of America spent $100 million by itself. In 2016 alone, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center of Houston had seven rotating TV spots that were viewed about a billion times.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America has been widely criticized for deceptive advertising. Their ads proudly tout “genomic testing,” which guides patient-specific chemotherapy. However, the ads fail to mention that there is a dismal success rate of such tests in trials. Only 6.4% of patients were successfully matched with a drug, according to a 2016 study published in Nature.

Part of the problem is that these so-called “direct to consumer” treatment ads do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We’re all familiar with pharmaceutical company advertising that is required to reveal all the potential side effects of the drugs they’re pushing. Unrealistic success rate predictions as seen in cancer center ads would never be tolerated by the FDA.

Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University said in an interview with NPR radio last year, “Hospitals aren’t held to FDA standards at all, so a hospital can go out and say, ‘This is where miracles happen. And here’s Joe. Joe was about to die. And now Joe is going to live forever.”

Perhaps this explains a phenomenon discussed in Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. Gawande reports that oncologists typically approach many of their cancer patients with the hope they can survive two or more years while patients report they are expecting to survive ten or twenty years. This gap in expectations may reflect the unrealistic advertising many of the same cancer treatment centers are promoting.

None of this is intended to destroy the hopes of cancer patients. Hope is vital for the successful treatment of any medical condition, especially cancer. Cancer survival statistics are improving. But hope must be balanced with realistic expectations lest patients feel abandoned in their desperate search for the truth about their future.

Here are some realistic cancer five-year survival rates taken from The American Cancer Society:

  • Cervix – 69%
  • Leukemia – 63%
  • Ovary – 46%
  • Brain/nervous system – 35%
  • Lung – 19%
  • Liver – 18%
  • Pancreas – 9%
  • Breast – nearly 100% (without metastasis) to 22% (with metastasis)


These survival rates reflect averages with each diagnosis but may vary widely according to the stage of disease at diagnosis. (Note the wide variation with breast cancer.)

If your doctor has just given you a diagnosis of cancer, stop and take time to think before you act. Discuss it with your doctor, consider a second opinion, and then pray. Don’t look to the TV for your answers.

One comment

  1. Tremendously powerful article written by Dr. Bob. Thanks for the honesty. David Godfrey

    Comment by David R. Godfrey on May 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm