Protecting yourself from cancer scams


If you or a loved one has cancer, you want to do everything possible to fight the disease. Unfortunately, there are companies who take advantage of this and promote phony cancer treatments that do not work. These treatments come in all forms, from creams and salves to mega-doses of vitamins. Using unproven treatments can be a waste of money. At worst, they can even be harmful. Learn to protect yourself by learning how to spot possible cancer scams.

How Scams Can Hurt You

Using an unproven treatment can be harmful in a few ways:

  • It can delay your use of an approved treatment. When you are treating cancer, time is precious. A delay in treatment can allow the cancer to grow and spread. This can make it harder to treat.
  • Some of these products interfere with standard cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation. This can make your treatment less effective.
  • In some cases, these treatments can be harmful. For example, black salves, touted as a miracle cancer cure, can burn off layers of your skin.

How to Spot a Scam

There are some easy ways to spot a cancer treatment scam. Here are a few:

  • The drug or product claims to treat all types of cancer. This is a tip-off because all cancers are different and no one drug can treat them all.
  • The product includes claims such as "miracle cure," "secret ingredient," "scientific breakthrough," or "ancient remedy."
  • It is advertised using personal stories from people. In many cases these are paid actors, but even if they are real, such stories do not prove a product works.
  • The product includes a money-back guarantee.
  • The ads for the product use lots of technical or medical jargon.
  • The product is deemed safe because it is "natural." Not all natural products are safe. And even natural products that are generally safe, like vitamins, may not be safe during cancer treatment.

Look for FDA Approval

It is hard to know if a product or drug really works just from reading claims or studies. That is why it is important to use cancer treatments that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To get FDA approval, drugs must to go through extensive testing to make sure they are effective and safe. Using a cancer treatment that has not been approved by the FDA is risky at best, and can even hurt you.

Some types of complementary and alternative medicine may help ease the side effects of cancer and its treatment. But none of these treatments have been proven to treat or cure cancer.

Investigational Drugs

There is a difference between an unproven treatment and investigational drugs. These are drugs that are being studied to see if they work well to treat cancer. Cancer patients may take investigational drugs as part of a clinical trial. This is a study to test how well the drug works, and to check its side effects and safety. Clinical trials are the last step before a drug can get approval from the FDA.

When to Call Your Doctor

If you are curious about a cancer treatment you have heard about, your best bet it so ask your health care provider about it. This includes complementary or alternative treatments. Your provider can weigh the medical evidence and help you decide if it is an option for you. Your provider can also make sure it will not interfere with your cancer treatment.


Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. Cancer Treatment Scams. September 2008. Available at: Accessed August 25, 2015.

National Cancer Institute. Access to Investigational Drugs. August 4, 2009. Available at: Accessed August 25, 2015.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Cancer and Complementary Health Approaches. May 2013. Available at: Accessed August 25, 2015.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Beware of Online Cancer Fraud. January 2014. Available at: Accessed August 25, 2015.

Review date:
December 07, 2016
Reviewed by:
Christine Zhang, MD, medical oncologist, Fresno, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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