Researchers at Simon Fraser University have published a brief but disturbing article in The Lancet Oncology all about how people have used fundraising website GoFundMe to cover unscientific, disreputable cancer treatments.
Last summer, Jeremy Snyder and Timothy Caulfield searched the site for anything that included the words “cancer” and variants of “homeopathy.” They came across 220 campaigns, which they tracked for fundraising goals, donations made, donors who chipped in, Facebook shares, etc.
Those 220 campaigns received a lot of money and had a lot of reach (excerpt below edited for clarity)
They requested $5,795,602 and were pledged $1,413,482 (24% of the total requested) by 13,621 donors. These campaigns were shared on Facebook 112,353 times. Campaign recipients were a very ill group, as evidenced by the fact that at least 62 (28%) had died following the start of their campaigns.
More than 13,000 people donated money to sham “cures” that have never been shown to help cancer patients. Many of those patients also sought other kinds of unproven “treatments,” including juicing, naturopathy, energy healing, magnets, etc.
While 83 of the 220 campaigns were done in addition to traditional treatments, the rest were avoiding actual medicine in order to give the sham methods a shot. To be fair, though, 69 fundraisers in that latter bunch couldn’t afford traditional treatments for financial or medical reasons.
The researchers conclude:
Campaigns driven by any of these rationales have the potential to exacerbate problems associated with the use of alternative cancer treatments, including wasting resources and raising false hopes for better health. Importantly, through crowdfunding and the power of social networks, these problems are spread to larger communities. This funding source also gives patients who have been told that continued care with traditional methods is futile the opportunity to preserve the hopes of themselves and their social networks that some unproven method of treatment will reverse their cancer. As such, crowdfunding might make it more difficult to acknowledge a terminal diagnosis and accept palliative care options insofar as palliative care is viewed by many patients as giving up on treatment.
While the patients’ desire for false hope is disturbing enough, it’s appalling that GoFundMe is allowing these pages to remain up at all. It’s like Amazon allowing someone to sell products that don’t exist. They’ll take your money even though these are effectively scams. A spokesperson for GoFundMe didn’t make anything better in a statement to Gizmodo:
Our role is to provide users with social fundraising tools to raise money for their cause or need. While we hope to be a helpful resource for personal fundraising, we believe it is not our place to tell them what decision to make. That said, GoFundMe is an open platform and ultimately it is up to the GoFundMe community to decide which campaigns to donate to. We always encourage people to fully research whatever it is they are raising money for and to be absolutely transparent on their GoFundMe page, so donors can make an informed decision on what they’re donating to.
The researchers suggest in their piece, however, that it’s hard for anyone to make “an informed decision” about the fundraisers when many of the pages make outlandish claims about the possibilities. 63 of them (29%) made “unsubstantiated, positive claims about the activity of these treatments” using personal anecdotes or statements that make sweeping claims about the efficacy of the treatments. Only two of the fundraisers, they said, were open about how the treatments were “uncertain” options.