Medical crowdfunding for alternative cancer therapies can harm patients

According to a new study by Canadian researchers Jeremy Snyder and Timothy Caulfield published in The Lancet Oncology



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The use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments by cancer patients is growing in popularity. Patients, who cannot afford such therapies, often resort to medical fundraising through crowdfunding campaigns on online platforms. GoFundMe is currently the largest crowdfunding platform, offering fundraising campaigns for medical expenses, educational goals, personal aspirations, volunteer programs, and other miscellaneous activities. The platform launched in 2010 has attracted over 50 million donors raising over $5 billion USD. There has also been a growth in campaigns fundraising for holistic and CAM cancer treatments. A quick look at such fundraising efforts on GoFundMe shows a campaigner diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma seeking $35,000 USD for a CAM cancer treatment that is not covered by health insurance. Rather then undergoing conventional treatments, the patient is presently pursuing homeopathic methods consisting of a nutritional diet and exercise offered by a holistic Wellness Center in Florida. Other campaigners are seeking alternative treatments ranging from mild interventions promoted by traditional Chinese medicine to more invasive and potentially harmful methods such as autohemotherapy. The rising interest in such treatments is alarming, as there is no evidence to suggest that CAM remedies are effective in treating cancer. Crowdfunding platforms are thus opening the doors to a new and dangerous market, where unproven therapies are becoming easily accessible for terminally ill people.


Snyder and Caulfield’s recent study in The Lancet Oncology provides a revealing insight into how medical crowdfunding is used to fund questionable CAM treatments for cancer. They identified 220 campaigns on the platform GoFundMe seeking holistic or CAM therapies for cancer treatment, most of them in the U.S. (186), but also 23 in Canada. Their analysis determined that cancer patients seek out alternative treatments for three major reasons: (1) in an attempt to try every available treatment, (2) due to skepticism towards conventional cancer treatments, and (3) for financial or medical reasons that prevent patients from undergoing conventional treatments. There was a fascinating range of unproven cancer treatments sought by campaigners - mostly homeopathic cures, but also dietary regimes such as juicing and organic foods, supplements, vitamins, herbal remedies, vitamin C infusions, oxygen, ozone and hyperbaric treatments, acupuncture, cannabis-based treatments, naturopathy, cleanses and detoxification, energy healing, hyperthermic treatments, traditional Chinese medicine, pH balancing and alkaline water treatments, mistletoe, Ayurveda, and yoga, among other wellness interventions.


The researchers highlight two distinct ethical concerns surrounding crowdfunding of unproven CAM, namely, the induced emotional trauma of pursuing therapies under false pretenses and potential harms from the spread of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims regarding the efficacy of naturopathy against cancer. Although naturopathic methods can promote well-being, they are not a treatment for cancer. There is no scientific or medical evidence to suggest that CAM treatments for cancer are effective. Instead, these unproven therapies are instilling false hope into patients and are holding them back emotionally from accepting their terminal illness and palliative care options. It is important to understand as a donor that funding holistic and CAM therapies will have no effect on cancer. Campaigners must also be aware that alternative therapies are unlikely to be effective and lead to a cure. Additionally, there is concern that campaigning for holistic CAM cancer therapies can be misinterpreted as advocating the therapy, thereby unintentionally normalizing it to the public.


Snyder and Caulfield recommend that medical practitioners, health organizations, patients support groups and medical crowdfunding platforms work together to address the issue of spreading misinformation online. By doing so, cancer patients will be emotionally and financially aware of what they are campaigning for. However, this may also undermine their fundraising goals, as donors may feel less inclined to donate to a campaign seeking funds for what is clearly identified as unproven therapies. This is when the public must ask themselves what they value, if not both: donating to improve the well-being of a patient or donating towards the cure and recovery of a patient.


Hannah Horvath is a science writer at the Canadian Institute for Genomics and Society. She is currently completing her undergraduate studies at McMaster University in Hamilton with a specialization in Life Sciences.

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