1939 Cancer Act doesn’t criminalise discussion of cancer ‘cures’

4 May 2022
What was claimed

The Cancer Act 1939 stops people from discussing cancer treatments that aren’t chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.

Our verdict

There is no law in the UK that limits cancer treatments to these three options, and the law only stops people advertising cures to the public, not discussing them.

A post on Facebook claims that the “relatively unknown 1939 Cancer Act” states that the disease can only be cured with chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, and anyone who claims to have used a different cure “is liable for prosecution”. 

This isn’t true. While the Cancer Act 1939 is a real piece of legislation and is still in use—in part—today, it doesn’t ban medical professionals from offering other forms of treatment and it doesn’t stop people from claiming to have cured the disease through alternative means. 

We have written before about false claims that the Act prevents research into alternative cures for cancer, and misleading claims about the legislation are so widespread that Cancer Research UK has explained it in detail on its site. 

Misinterpretations of the Act have previously been the subject of petitions to government and Parliament. These petitions have been rejected, under the reasoning that “no UK law or Government policy prevents medical personnel in the UK from discussing or investigating potential cancer treatments”. 

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Legislation only stops cancer treatments being advertised to the public 

Predating the formation of the NHS by almost a decade, the Cancer Act 1939 originally specified how cancer treatments should be paid for, and how those treatments should be administered across the country.

One of the intentions of the Cancer Act 1939 was to “prohibit certain advertisements relating to cancer”. In the intervening decades the Act has changed substantially, but the rules on advertising—contained in Section 4—largely remain in place. 

The law as it stands today means that nobody can advertise cancer treatments for sale to the general public in order to protect consumers. (They can still advertise treatments to Members of Parliament, medical practitioners and local authorities.) 

This isn’t just limited to unproven or unconventional treatments. The ban on advertising extends to all treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation. 

This doesn’t prevent people from claiming that an alternative treatment has been used to cure cancer, it just means that they can’t advertise that treatment. Cancer Research UK says “Implicit in the term ‘advertisement’ is that there is a financial incentive.” 

To give a practical example, if someone claimed that a specific type of diet plan cured cancer, they would be able to publish an article in a scientific journal explaining their proposed treatment under the Act. They would not, however, be allowed to advertise their diet plan directly to consumers. 

Image courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.

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