I've heard a theory that given the widespread incidence of cancer, a cancer cure probably already exists but has been hidden by major pharmaceutical companies to maximise revenue from expensive cancer treatment, since a cure would be one-off but treatment is life-long.

From Is There Really a Conspiracy to Suppress Cancer Cures?:

The general story is that there is a conspiracy by the established medical industry to keep the cure for cancer hidden. This is the “cancer conspiracy” discussed on this page. The reasoning behind this theory typically goes like this:

Alleged Fact 1: Cancer is a multi-billion dollar industry.

+ Alleged Fact 2: Treatment x cures cancer so well it would destroy that industry.

=> Conclusion: Some individuals, companies, and government organisations involved in the industry are suppressing the information about x to keep their industry thriving.

Comic strip with dialog between a man who has found the cure for cancer and a man who is "sorry to hear that" because they both would now be out of their jobs

However, sources for these claims have been rather questionable, and while I definitely don't believe them myself, out of curiosity, is there any evidence for this conspiracy theory?

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    I think it would help if you asked about a particular treatment, or a set of particular treatments; otherwise we would be restricted to treating the question on theoretical grounds.
    – P_S
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 9:35
  • 2
    I wonder if such a thing ever happened (medical industry concealing a cure for "economical reasons"). Regrettably it isn't a good question for the site Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 23:44
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    Whenever I hear about "a cure for cancer," I can't help but think of this comic.
    – Chuu
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 14:52
  • Why does the guy on the left look like the stereotypical robber, with a mask over his eyes and obvious beard stubble?
    – Michael
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 15:55
  • Er, alleged reasoning. It seems to me that this question (as asked) is related to psychology rather than medical science. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 2:06

1 Answer 1


No, this has no credibility whatsoever, for a number of very good reasons, each of which on its own would be sufficient to debunk the hypothesis:

  • Individual motivation: people don't get into cancer research to get rich, but because they want to cure cancer, and for the prestige ("Among the factors that motivate researchers, the excitement of discovery stood out in terms of both high importance and satisfaction. Publications were viewed as more important research outcomes than patenting or commercial ventures."). Whoever found this cure would earn the gratitude and admiration of millions, achieve the biggest thing that is possible to achieve in the field they chose to dedicate their life to, and win a Nobel prize with absolute certainty (the American Cancer Society lists 47 nobel laureates they have supported). No amount of money could match that.
  • Profit: Just look at the current Sovaldi story where a cure for Hepatitis C was released - disease that is even more expensive to treat ($60,000 to $100,000 lifetime cost) than breast cancer ($23,000 to $36,000 lifetime cost). "Major pharmaceutical companies" are competitors - and whoever were the first to patent this cure would have the biggest jackpot in the history of medicine and wipe the floor with the competition. You could price this cure at $10,000 or more and still have millions of customers, so tens of billions of profits! And it would even be a steady stream of revenue, as people would continue to get cancer - unless it's some sort of vaccination, in which case, even better, every person on the planet is your customer! So for the company who found the cure, releasing it would maximise revenue - and by not releasing it, they'd risk having the competition find it and release it first...
  • Research doesn't work like that: Medical research is a community effort and works incrementally. Intermediate results are constantly published because publication record is what determines a researcher's value, and it may even be done deliberately to discourage competitors. Developing a cure from first principles in complete secrecy is simply not how it's done. It would be too slow and it's not as if you know at the beginning that your end result will be something that you might want to keep secret.
  • Cancer doesn't work like that: A singular "cure for cancer" will almost certainly never exist. That is because "Cancer is not one, but hundreds of diseases. [...] Each cancer has to be considered and treated accordingly. Each type of cancer is biologically different from the other, and each causes a whole set of different problems, which must be treated in different ways." In fact, even one tumor of a single patient often consists of multiple strains of cancerous cells that respond differently to treatments! Pretty much the only treatments that work for many different cancers are the extremely crude ones: surgery (cut it out!) and radiotherapy (burn it with death rays!), both of which are also only efficient in specific circumstances (contained, solid tumors).
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    This is one of those claims that is really hard to answer inside our constraints. Though I think Sovaldi is a very good answer to the claim that cures are not profitable.
    – Mad Scientist
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 11:39
  • Points 1 and 2 completely sidestep the argument made by conspiracy theorists. Cost-benefit analysis works when it's cost to party A and benefit to party A. In this scenario, it's cost to party B and benefit to party A, and the basic conspiracy claim concerns the willingness of B to threaten A. Now A is faced with a whole different cost-benefit analysis.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 0:28
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  • By comparison, conspiracy theories that petro-giants aim to stop development of efficient localised solar power generation make a lot of sense.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 22:23
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    Following on to the last bullet point -- we do have "cures" for some types of cancers -- but not most. ("cures" = treatments that have a high probability of working with little to no chance of remission -- again though -- only for very specific types/strains of cancer). -- The best thing you can do for any type of cancer is early detection -- get suspicious lumps checked by your doctor -- also go get your genome mapped and find out if you have any kind of hereditary disposition to one type or another (or to any other diseases), and then get screened for them and avoid the risk factors! Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 5:54

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