Since 2009, at least £8 million has been crowdfunded for ‘alternative’ cancer treatments in the UK. In 2016 alone, more than 2,300 cancer-related appeals were started on the UK site JustGiving. While some funding goes towards experimental treatments that is credible, some money is going towards unproven and even discredited cancer treatments. This, a British Medical Journal (BMJ) report says, could lead to vulnerable people being exploited.
The BMJ looked at data from the Good Thinking Society, a charity which promoted scientific thinking. The charity looked into how much money was being raised in this country for non-NHS cancer treatments through sites such as Go Fund Me and JustGiving. The BMJ also has figures which reveal where that money was going. Clinics in Germany, Mexico, and the USA were the main places, possibly because it is illegal to directly advertise cancer treatments or alleged ‘cures’ in the UK.
The Hallwing Private Oncology Clinic in Germany received over half of the £8 million though the clinic disputes whether it took all the raised money.
According to some of the families quoted by the BMJ, researching treatments can be beneficial even when they fail. “It gave her hope at a point where we had none,” the sister of a woman who died a year after alternative treatment she received in Mexico said. The husband of a woman who died while being treated at the Hallwing Clinic said that he believes it extended her life, though despite the fundraising, the £350,000 cost of the treatment left him in debt. The Hallwing Clinic, according to the BMJ, does not publish figures on survival rates or patient outcomes.
The Good Thinking Society has called on crowdfunding websites to vet applications for alternative cancer treatments. Go Fund Me has said that it plans to monitor “content of this kind more closely to provide tailored advice” though JustGiving is not convinced. “We don’t believe we have the expertise to make a judgement on this,” it said.
People may be driven to search for alternatives after hearing that there is nothing more the NHS can do for them and when all proven treatments have been exhausted. Unsurprisingly, they may try anything that might prolong their lives even when there is no evidence that it works.
The BMJ says that some of the funds raised are for experimental but scientifically based treatments such as biological immunotherapy. This could include established treatments being used in doses or drug combinations that are not recommended. Other appeals have raised funds for treatments with little evidence including vitamin injections and coffee enemas.
This can allow the purveyors of alternative treatments to prey on the desperation of people and crowdfunding allows them to exploit the generosity of friends, families, and well-wishers. This, the BMJ says, “has opened up a new and lucrative revenue stream for cranks, charlatans and con men who prey on the vulnerable.”