Technically, Wark is correct: Chemotherapy is poison. Chemotherapy is derived from noxious mustard gas, which was first developed as a military weapon; those who inhaled it experienced trouble breathing and instantaneous blindness and they usually died. In 1943, two scientists at Yale experimented to see if mustard gas could be aimed specifically at cancer cells, which are distinguished by their constant division into new, unnecessary cells. They were successful.
Today, chemotherapy drugs, of which there are numerous different types, are usually administered in a medical facility via a port implanted in a patient’s chest. Chemotherapy can be used as a sole treatment for cancer or as an adjuvant to surgery or radiation to reduce the risk of the cancer returning. The side effects, which can include hair loss and intense nausea, can be debilitating.
A group of online cancer truthers have zeroed in on chemotherapy as the ultimate example of the hubris and greed of Western medicine and Big Pharma.
“Various chemotherapeutic agents still have significant toxicity,” Michael Spencer, a surgical oncologist who specializes in colon and rectal cancer at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, told me.
But chemotherapy continues to be one of the most powerful and effective treatments for many kinds of cancer. When used as a complementary therapy either before or after tumor removal, it’s often been shown to reduce the risk of relapse, notably in breast and bladder cancers; it’s used as a standalone treatment for blood-based cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, with great results. Indeed, some childhood leukemias now have five-year survival rates of upwards of 90% — up from about 20% in 1965 — thanks in large part to advances in chemotherapy.
Still, a group of online cancer truthers have zeroed in on chemotherapy as the ultimate example of the hubris and greed of Western medicine and Big Pharma. They claim chemotherapy is ineffective, that it weakens the immune system, and even that it causes cancer. They say the only reason it’s the frontline treatment for cancer is because American physicians are beholden to pharmaceutical giants, incentivizing them to resort to drugs at the expense of prevention and general wellness education.
Part of the reason this message might be compelling to vulnerable people is because not all of it is outlandish. Drug companies do behave unethically: Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are currently investigating pharmaceutical giants, including Johnson & Johnson and Teva, to determine whether they ignored distribution regulations to increase sales of addictive opioids. And primary care is seriously undervalued, which leaves some consumers suspicious that the health care establishment is less interested in preventative care than more lucrative, specialist-driven therapies.
There is even some merit to the idea that chemotherapy causes cancer, though the connection is tenuous at best. A 2017 study in Science Translational Medicine linked the use of neoadjuvant chemotherapy to an increased risk in cancer spreading in some breast cancer patients. “One of the most heartbreaking scenarios I come across is when a cancer survivor develops a leukemia that was likely related to their previous chemotherapy treatment,” says Dr. Tim Pardee, an oncologist with Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before stressing that it’s a rare occurrence and the potential reward outweighs the risks.
Online cancer truthers exploit these facts and share dangerous sentiments, saying cancer is a naturally occurring phenomenon that people shouldn’t fear. They argue the disease can be treated with natural, “nontoxic” methods that are suppressed by Western medicine because they can’t be commodified, and then the cancer truthers “reveal” these insights on their websites, in their books, or via their health-coaching services, for a price.
Some, like Wark, have had cancer themselves, while others, like Ty and Charlene Bollinger of The Truth About Cancer, had loved ones succumb to it. A few, like Dr. Joseph Mercola, who runs a large and much-maligned “natural health website,” are osteopaths, chiropractors, or naturopaths.
As to why chemotherapy is demonized over other equally harrowing cancer treatments like surgery or radiation, David Gorski, a professor of cancer surgery at Wayne State University in Michigan and managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, thinks it’s an easy target because of its toxicity. “Surgery, most people understand and have seen people do well after. Radiation therapy is less well understood but not as feared. Thanks to media portrayals, people fear chemotherapy.”
Anti-chemo advocates have other commonalities: They often distrust government organizations, particularly the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they have rigid ideas about diet, and they are often Christian or lean heavily on New Thought ideology. If you spend time in their spaces, you see the same dubious, universally unproven “miracle” cures promoted on loop: the ketogenic diet, high-dose vitamin C drips, essential oils, coffee enemas, ozone treatment, all the herbs, detox regimens like Gerson therapy, and prayer.
One of the most prolific outfits in this universe is The Truth About Cancer, often abbreviated as TTAC, run by former bodybuilder and accountant Ty Bollinger and his wife, Charlene. Founded in 2014 after numerous members of Ty’s family died of cancer, TTAC’s website is a vast library of articles with titles like “30+ Natural Alternatives to Consider Before Chemotherapy” or “The Truth About Chemotherapy — Toxic Poison or Cancer Cure?”
The Bollingers also offer numerous items for purchase, including dietary supplements and medical device-adjacent products like in-home infrared saunas ($800 to $900) or qi machines to protect against electromagnetic fields. (A personal one is $495, while one designed for businesses will set you back $4,995.) The World Health Organization states that “any increase in risk [in cancer from exposure to EMFs] will be extremely small.”
The Bollingers also produce an astonishing amount of video content, of which I’ve watched upwards of 20 hours over the past month. In 2015, they released the docuseries The Quest for the Cures and The Quest for The Cures… Continues, which they followed up with The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest. They estimate the three series have been watched by more than 10 million people.
The docuseries is the Bollingers’ preferred format; they typically allow viewers to stream their shows for free for 24 hours before requiring payment. In November of this year, they released Eastern Medicine: Journey Through Asia, a seven-episode series in which Ty Bollinger and a film crew traveled to seven Asian countries to interview naturopaths, ketogenic chefs, and integrative doctors. The interviewees overwhelmingly join Bollinger in vilifying chemo and Western medicine: Chemo is “not effective” because patients “die,” “overenthusiastic” oncologists will “rob you of your money and kill you,” and the body isn’t suffering from lack of cancer, but rather “is crying to heal itself with nature.”
One of the more outrageous moments of the seven hours was when Bollinger’s associate Tony Jimenez, who founded an alternative cancer clinic in Mexico, interviewed a Japanese man named Shu Funase, introduced as “the author of over 250 books.” Funase, wearing a vaguely medical-looking white coat, told Jimenez about his latest book, an exposé on chemotherapy. “It’s only just a poison,” he said in broken English, “so the poison will kill the patient. To cure, no. To kill.”
When Jimenez asks why the book hadn’t been translated into English, Funase wryly raised an eyebrow. A “famous American healer,” he said, advised him never to sell the book in the United States. “If you do that,” the healer allegedly told him, “you shall be killed in two weeks.”