One of the first results that pops up in a Google search for “inspiring cancer stories” is a page on the website, “inspiringsurvivorstories.com.” The contents of the website are inaccurate and dangerously misleading, and we’re sharing the link so you can know what to look out for—and avoid—if you decide to delve into the internet rabbit hole of cancer information. Here are some tell-tale signs of fake cancer news we found when we took a closer look at the site.
Red Flag #1: Excessive Praise of “Alternative” or “Natural” Treatments
The headline at the top of the website reads, “Natural Cancer Treatments at a Mexican Cancer Clinic Saved Peggy Sue’s Life in 2007: There is Hope With Natural Alternative Cancer Treatments.”READ MORE
This is the first red flag on the website. SurvivorNet has spoken with hundreds of leading experts in cancer care, and they’ve told us time and again that the facts are clear: treatments used as a substitute for conventional medicine are not going to give you a better chance of surviving your cancer.
There’s evidence of this; a 2018 Yale Medicine study published in highly respected, peer-reviewed JAMA Oncology found that patients who choose alternative medicine over conventional medicine are more likely to die of cancer.
This isn’t to say that some natural supplements or lifestyle approaches can’t benefit you on your cancer journey, though. Many oncologists actually support approaches when they’re used alongside (not instead of) conventional treatment—so long as patients talk with them first and make sure it’s a good idea. This approach is called “integrative medicine,” and it means pairing legitimate cancer treatment with natural “complementary” treatments (medical marijuana is one example).
The experts cannot stress enough, though, how important it is that patients with cancer ask their (legitimate, licensed) doctors before taking anything new. These doctors alone can determine whether the supplement or therapy you’re thinking about taking is not going to interfere with your actual cancer treatment or make the side effects worse.
Red Flag #2: Where is the Research?
In the survivor story that Roberts shares about Peggy Sue, he claims that her cancer was cured by natural medicine, but he’s not specific about what treatments she’s had (nor does he share the name or location of this “lifesaving” clinic she visited). Beneath the survivor story, there’s a list of “Natural Therapies By IV”—not one of which includes a link to a published piece of medical research supporting the claims.
The list is almost comically vague (one item on it is “vitamin and mineral supplements). It also lists immunotherapy in the “Natural Therapy By IV” list, which is entirely misleading, because immunotherapy is a legitimate, conventional treatment that consists of drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and only licensed medical professionals can prescribe it to their patients.
Red Flag #3: Where Are the Doctors?
This warning sign is straightforward; Roberts hasn’t shared a single name of a licensed medical professional on the website.
Red Flag #4: Pricing Information
Very few legitimate medical centers will list general numeric figures on their websites for cost. This is because medical costs vary drastically based on the individual patient, the treatment they receive, and the type of insurance they have. When Roberts says the type of cancer clinic that “saved Peggy Sue’s life” “usually cost $18,000 and can go up from there,” it’s likely because he’s going to try to take that money from the pockets of the vulnerable patients that fall for the misleading “cures” on his website.
Red Flag #5: Is This an Infomercial?
It sounds funny, but the style of the website and the tone of the video on the website can actually say a lot about its legitimacy. In Rusty Roberts’ video, he’s standing at a kitchen island next to a blender and a basket of fruit (the archetypal infomercial setting) and his voice mirrors that of a promotional infomercial trying to sell you some sort of phone product. He’s very clearly trying to sell something here.
Dr. Ann Partridge of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute spoke with SurvivorNet about the lure of vitamins and supplements for “curing cancer” and how a lot of people are “selling hope”—not legitimate treatment.
And don’t discount the appearance of the text on the website, either. In a conversation with SurvivorNet, John Gregory of NewsGuard, a company that rates the credibility of internet news, said that similar to political misinformation, health misinformation often relies on emotion and sensationalism to make its case. “Sometimes, that’s as simple as the site using ALL CAPS in the text,” Gregory said. (This “inspiring survivor stories” website is packed with all caps, bolded messaging, and highlighted text).
After noting the presence of all five red flags—and determining that this website is most definitely misleading—I did some quick background research on Rusty Roberts and found that unfortunately, this is not the only website that hosts his misinformation. He also administers a Facebook page called “Natural Treatment Knowledge” and a group called “PeggySueSurvived.com,” both of which are pedaling the same harmful content. In a previous post on the Natural Treatment Knowledge page, Roberts wrote that “75 percent of people who go to a clinic we recommend survive regardless of their type and stage of cancer,” and he responded to a doctor who voiced concern about Roberts’ page by saying “you are probably happy with a 5 percent success rate. We think a 5 percent success rate sucks.”
The remarkable pace of treatment advances in the field and the sheer number of clinical trials taking place at any given moment are enough to refute Roberts’ claim that the licensed doctors who practice conventional medicine are “happy” with a 5 percent success rate. (Which is an arbitrary number, it’s worth adding.) Doctors are not at all happy with low survival rates. If they were, they wouldn’t be devoting themselves to improving it.
As Dr. Jason Westin, an oncologist and lymphoma researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a conversation about alternative therapies, “If there were treatment options that weren’t based on chemotherapy, that weren’t based on targeted therapies, that worked well for our patients, sign me up,” he said, explaining that the reason doctors aren’t treating their patients with these alternative therapies (the supplements and “miracle cures” out there) is because they haven’t been shown to be effective in clinical research.