A note on The Cancer Act of 1939

The Cancer Act became law in 1939. It has since been amended many times, and most of its sections, clauses and provisions have been repealed or are now incorporated into other health legislation. It remains nevertheless on the statute book.

It was enacted before the National Health Service was established, to ensure that authorities were able to provide all treatment necessary to those suffering from cancer. At the time, the only treatment known to science was radium therapy – the forerunner of radiotherapy. This required large amounts of radium, the production of which was expensive and entirely government controlled. The point of the Act was therefore to ensure that state supported loans would be always available for the supply of radium sufficient for all relevant health services, and that this complex and sensitive enterprise would remain well funded and protected. Although not explicitly mentioned in the Act, it was reported at the time that it was motivated to protect the public from charlatans and sellers of snake oil. As it stands, this is the only matter for which the Act now legislates:

No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof. Contraventions for a first offence can result in a fine on level three of the standard scale, for second and subsequent offences in an additional fine on level three, and/or a three month term of imprisonment. It will be considered a defence for those charged with the above to prove that the advertisement to which the proceedings relate was published only so far as was reasonably necessary to bring it to the notice of persons of the following classes or of one or some of them, that is to say: members of either House of Parliament or of a local authority or of a governing body of a voluntary hospital; registered medical practitioners; registered pharmacists and persons lawfully conducting a retail pharmacy business in accordance with section 69 of the Medicines Act 1968; and persons undergoing training with a view to becoming registered medical practitioners, nurses or pharmacists. Further it will be considered a defence to prove that the said advertisement was published only in a publication of a technical character intended for circulation mainly amongst persons of the classes mentioned above or one of some of those classes; or that the said advertisement was published in such circumstances that the accused did not know and had no reason to believe that she or he was taking part in the publication thereof. For the purposes of law, the expression “advertisement” includes any notice, circular, label, wrapper or other document, and any announcement made orally or by any means of producing or transmitting sounds. The Act finally states that nothing in this section shall apply in respect of any advertisement published by a local authority or by the governing body of a voluntary hospital or by any person acting with the sanction of the government. 

The above is an accurate transcription of current UK law.

In plain terms it means that institutions of health and state are the only bodies legally permitted to advertise that cancer can be cured, that it is illegal for any other body or individual to advertise as a cancer treatment any substance, procedure or technique – except to provide information to representatives of the state and to recognised health professionals in legitimate trade journals.


Prosecutions are not common; between 1984 and 2014 there were only 25 convictions under the Act, brought by Trading Standards Authorities against purveyors of so called alternative therapies, claiming that these were cancer cures. More commonly, the simple existence of the Act creates situations in which those with unusual, innovative or non mainstream approaches to disease in general and to cancer in particular are reluctant to speak in public, or have found it difficult, if not impossible, to organise events where the issues can be openly discussed and examined, not because by doing so they would be contravening the terms of the Cancer Act, but because it is not good for the reputations of open minded oncologists working in established positions to “share a platform” with anybody who does not kowtow to or who explicitly threatens establishment methods, principles and assumptions.

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council issued guidelines in 2012 to its members advising them how to practice without falling foul of the law. It is important that, when advertising complementary therapies to cancer patients, members have the Cancer Act at the forefront of their minds and ensure that they set out clearly that the therapies they are marketing are not treatments and/or remedies for cancer. If they are advertising a complementary therapy to cancer patients, they should include a sentence setting out that the therapy is intended to relieve the symptoms of cancer or the side-effects of the treatment prescribed by the client’s consultant, and that the therapy is not a treatment or a remedy for the cancer itself. The advert should always make plain the distinction between a complementary therapy and a treatment or remedy. It is also recommended that complementary therapists advise that any cancer patients speak to the clinician responsible for their care and treatment before embarking on therapy to manage the symptoms of cancer.

There is a great deal of deference here towards the authority of established medical opinion, for no other reason than that the Cancer Act requires it – or at least in order to be seen not to be contravening it. Under this legal framework, it is not difficult to understand how it might be difficult for new therapies against cancer to be developed that do not already conform to criteria laid down by the medical establishment.

There is also a difficulty arising from an anachronism of the Act itself. In 1939, the word advertise was more easily associated with displaying or promulgating information than it is today, where its primary meaning has become offering for sale. It seems fairly obvious that what the Act intends by the word advertise is the former more general sense of promulgate information. Modern legal minds wrestle nevertheless with an ambiguity, which in a completely different context, led to a rather odd decision, when a Scottish Gin Appreciation Society received fines from the Advertising Standards Authority for sharing ironic, tongue-in-cheek remarks at its Facebook page about why gin is good for you.

Populist confusion exacerbates matters, with for example, Snopes fact-checking the claim that “The Cancer Act of 1939 makes it illegal to cure cancer” which is quite clearly not what the Act outlaws. Apparently though it has been interpreted thus, otherwise why would Snopes be investigating it. There is something pernicious about this though, for there are far more plausible, interesting and less obviously stupid interpretations of the Cancer Act that could be checked. Snopes is in danger here simply of setting up a straw man against which to ventilate the usual prejudices about science and society.

At Good Thinking, a site dedicated to “encouraging curious minds and promoting rational enquiry” – which at the same time, “inevitably battles against irrationality and pseudoscience” – readers are encouraged to report potential contraventions of The Cancer Act and will be supported by the site if a case can be made. The site’s administrators do not care for charlatans and quackery and give the impression that they can differentiate between legitimately disseminating information and illegal advertising. Ostensibly they are open to anything, but emphasise that there is no evidence that any alternative cancer therapies actually work. That the Act should not prevent discussion or dissemination of information is emphasised at Cancer Research UK, which also presents itself as open minded, even though it also concludes quite firmly that there is no evidence to suggest that alternative treatments for cancer actually work.

There are nevertheless many voices calling for repeal of the Act on the basis that it does indeed stand in the way of, if not explicitly forbid, open discussion of what may or may not cure cancer. One such site claims that the main effect of the Act is to conceal cures from the public, so everyone is driven into the poison of chemotherapy at £40,000 a round, thereby offering fabulous profits to the big pharmaceutical companies, at the expense of over a hundred thousand British lives a year. There are, it claims “inexpensive cures for cancer out there” of which a dozen are listed at the website and none are chemotherapy – a claim that might perhaps provoke zealots to reach for the Cancer Act and drop a line to trading standards authorities. The suggestion that there is any conspiracy to suppress a cure for cancer in the name of profit of course provokes righteous displays of offended indignation from CRUK for this is the greatest insult to well-intentioned scientists and health professionals who would never do anything to perpetuate suffering.


I find myself looking down a familiar rabbit hole: a dubious dichotomy between good and bad science mixing with numerous quite specific struggles against the edifice of the medical establishment, gathered together and othered in the usual warren of projections, conflicts and misunderstandings.

Media representations and internet reports of the results and promises of research are all that public consciousness ever knows of science, while scientists working in assorted institutions plod along following protocols and methodologies developed for their particular research programs, believing they are all doing science in the same way. 

So called conspiracy theorists confuse the effects of the Law with both the letter and the spirit of the Law, and do not understand how deeply embedded is the current system of medicine into ancient historical structures that have absolutely nothing to do with the intentions of living individuals; defenders of the establishment confuse their good intentions with the effects on society of the institutions within which they work, and take conspiracy theories far too personally.

Proponents of so called alternative approaches often do not appreciate the legitimate scientific concerns of the medical establishment, which in turn does not realise that its reductive, mechanistic principles produce very narrow views of both science and cure.


Nobody would have any objection to a law that protects the public from purveyors of false hope and expensive snake oil, for there are a great many such scammers and scumbags out there, but the law as it now stands favours the status quo to reproduce a system that restricts rather than encourages innovation.

Nobody objects to scrutinising substances before they are administered as cures for cancer, but the criteria according to which this testing is required to take place rule out all substances that cannot be reduced to a chemical formula, synthesised and mass produced, before any actual testing happens.

And nobody objects to scientific rigour being employed when carrying out analyses of substances purporting to treat disease, but it is stretching belief in the scientific project to suggest that this is instantiated by default and operates flawlessly for the good of all in the monstrous assemblage of powers that go by the name of health care.


It has never been easy to point out the invisible power of scientism in a culture absolutely assured of the superiority of scientific explanations, practices and institutions. The Cancer Act is perhaps the essence of this scientistic society, for although it does not, according to most interpretations, explicitly forbid discussion or dissemination of ideas about curing cancer, it is quite simply a legal endorsement of the authority of established medical practice, and as such contributes to the marginalisation of everything else.

The effect of Cancer Act of 1939 is largely then to support the most essential of social powers; the power to control bodies, once exercised by Monarchs over subjects, is now mediated on behalf of the state by the medical profession, which has adopted entirely mechanistic explanations and procedures in collaboration with the production of ever more sophisticated pharmaceuticals, thereby flooding the mental environment with the delusion that good health can only be achieved by taking pills.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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