What Americans Think about Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

NOVEMBER 19, 2018

What do you think about cancer and cancer treatment?

Every year, ASCO (the American Society of Clinical Oncology) conducts a national survey to understand what Americans think about cancer. Both people who have had cancer and those who have not are questioned, and the results are always fascinating.

Here is the summary from this year’s survey. If you want to read more, just click on this link.

"Recently, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) released the results of its second annual National Cancer Opinion Survey. This nationally representative survey was conducted online among 4,887 U.S. adults who were 18 and older. Of the people who responded, 1,001 have or had cancer. Among the key findings of the survey were that many Americans believe cancer can be cured with alternative therapies alone, that medical costs and access to cancer care deeply affect caregivers and rural Americans, and that Americans worry about patients being able to access opioid medications for cancer-related pain."

Given the national mood and the divisions and splits within our country, it should not be surprising that opinions were so different. The one that I most notice is that many Americans believe that cancer can be cured by alternative therapies (CAM) alone. If you are a even a sporadic reader of this blog, you have seen other entries about CAM. You know that I fully support anyone’s right to make decisions for herself, but that I fervently believe it is important to talk with your doctor about your choices and anything that you are considering using to treat the disease. I am fully convinced that our standard care of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy is our best hope in curing or containing cancer. No one likes those treatments, and it is seductive to read about so-called natural medicines that don’t bring the same intense side effects. Many people are genuinely frightened about radiation or “putting poison, e.g. chemo, into their bodies.” I understand this. I also am awed by the power of cancer and know that we need to use any evidence-based weapons that we have to keep it at bay.

Reading that so many people believe that CAM therapies alone can cure cancer makes me realize that we are doing a less than excellent job of public education about cancer and treatments. There is a lot of appropriate conversation about access to care and the rising cost of health care, but where is the national discussion about legitimate treatments that are based on research and data and carefully considered studies and results? This scares me because, over the years, I have talked with a number of people who refused evidence-based/Western medicine and insisted on a program of CAM only. Some of them returned a year or two later with wide-spread, now incurable, cancer.

Stories abound of people who were seemingly cured by eating a particular food or taking a specific supplement. There are also people who were unexpectedly seemingly cured by Western medicine. In fact, the National Cancer Institute has a whole section devoted to the study of these exceptional responders. Their goal is to understand why some people do so much better than expected? What is it about their bodies that makes the treatment work so well?

A worthy public health goal would be to educate Americans about cancer treatment. These efforts should acknowledge the difficulties of going through chemo or radiation, but should also clearly explain and uphold their value. As far as I know, most public health efforts related to cancer are directed at smoking cessation, obesity, and access to care. Of course these are important, but so is knowing that relying on natural remedies is likely to kill you while chemotherapy often has a genuine chance of saving your life.

Doctors and other clinicians at our Cancer Center understand these complicated feelings and would always be glad to discuss them with you. 

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