Are Alternative Therapies the Way to Beat Cancer?

By Joel Fuhrman, M.D.

A recent study found that more than 90 million Americans now use the internet to find health-related information. Since many prestigious universities, medical societies, and scientific institutions make their research available online, a thoughtful and careful person can use the internet as a reliable reference source. Unfortunately, the internet also is flooded with advertisements (sometimes disguised as research) filled with false claims and pseudoscientific jargon about “alternative” supplements, remedies, and treatments. If these advertisements are to be believed, with a few keystrokes on your computer keyboard and your credit card, you can cure any ailment known to the direct marketing industry.

People who have been diagnosed with cancer are among the most likely to seek out and use alternative therapies since the prognosis and effectiveness of conventional treatments is often very poor. For patients with little hope of recovery through conventional means, the false hopes and far-fetched promises of “miracle cures” even may serve to temporarily enhance emotional well-being. But for care to be considered of long term benefit to a patient, certain criteria need to be met.

I usually look at four basic criteria (in addition to cost considerations) when helping a cancer patient decide whether or not to experiment with any alternative therapy or dietary supplement.

Ideally, I want to see all of the following:

  1. Studies with human cancer patients showing positive, measurable benefits; for example, eating ground flaxseed has been shown to help breast cancer patients;1
  2. A mechanism of action that is logical and scientifically valid;
  3. Human cell studies or animal studies corroborating the evidence and mechanism of action;
  4. No toxicity or other health risk from the therapy or supplement.

Few alternative therapies meet these criteria. While almost all products claim to be backed by scientific research, when you take a deeper look at the “research,” it invariably turns out to be merely a pseudoscientific article in a “health” magazine. Even in cases where research is cited, it is important to keep in mind that mouse and rat studies can be set up to demonstrate almost anything. It is very rare to find a therapy or supplement that has strong research— done on human subjects— supporting its efficacy in prolonging the life of cancer patients. (By contrast, there is voluminous scientific support for the use of a vegetable based diet rich in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, and their juices in promoting longevity.)

About 70 percent of patients with cancer use at least one type of alternative therapy or dietary supplement that is thought to help their cancer.2 Almost all patients report that the alternative therapy improved their well-being.

What do you say to a patient who has committed money, energy, and emotional attachment to a therapy that has no scientifically proven effectiveness? Each case is different. If the therapy isn’t harmful and the patient has a strong belief that it is “helping,” I may not discourage its use.

A Huge, Profitable Industry

Experience has shown that cancer patients are very susceptible to claims made by promoters of alternative treatments. It is exceedingly sad to watch a patient travel to Mexico or the Caribbean in a desperate search for a “cure.” Since all of us have been indoctrinated since childhood with the medical concept of “curing disease” (almost always by means of drugs, treatments, and surgery), is it any wonder that cancer patients grasp for magic pills, exotic isolated compounds, ozone therapy, potassium-iodine solution, laetrile, coffee enemas, pancreatic enzymes, injected urine, apricot seed pits, and other treatments in hope of beating their cancer? Proponents of these therapies are quick to provide fantastic stories and scientific-sounding rationales for their products, but patients who fall prey to these schemes are lucky if all they lose is their money. Some of these protocols are harmful enough to cause death all on their own. Failure to produce lasting beneficial results has not stopped alternative cancer care from growing into a billion dollar industry.

Cancer patients also are very susceptible to claims by the medical industry, which is constantly doing research on new drugs and chemotherapeutic interventions. Like their counterparts in the alternative therapy industry, drug companies are out to make money. But there are important differences in their approaches. Before experimental drugs are tested, there already is enough data to suggest that a trial is indicated, a medical review board will review the proposed trial and monitor results, and patients will not be charged for the experiment. Oncologists readily admit that they often have little to offer patients, but they are in an unenviable position that requires them to make an attempt even if the likelihood of success is remote. Unlike medically-sponsored research that is experimental, alternative therapies are routinely prescribed based on nothing more than utterly false claims. As a general rule, no serious attempt is made to accurately assess the efficacy of alternative therapies.

Mythical Qualifications

You don’t need a medical degree to make millions in this alternative therapy industry. Alternative approaches to cancer therapy usually are based on illogical and outmoded ideas that could never withstand scientific scrutiny. Nevertheless, their promoters can remain successful as long as they can sell a creative story that sounds scientifically convincing to the uninformed.

For example, Hilda Clark’s book, The Cure For All Cancers, sold millions of copies, claiming that liver flukes (a parasite) caused all cancers and that all cancers (and AIDS) could be cured by taking some herbs and killing the parasite with an electric zapping machine. She received her naturopathic degree from a mail-order company and then turned her silly claims into a multi-million dollar enterprise. I read the book, and it was utterly ridiculous. The same can be said for hundreds of other alternative treatments I have reviewed.

That being said, I don’t want to give the impression that no one ever benefits from a program of alternative therapy. Many of these approaches include health-building elements that offer real promise— they restrict or eliminate animal products and refined foods from the patients’ diets and they encourage high consumption of vegetables, vegetable juices, and raw plant foods. There is convincing scientific evidence that eating a diet made predominantly of healthful, phytochemical- rich foods aids the body’s defenses against cancer and helps prolong life. But there simply is no evidence that the pills, potions, enemas, intravenous treatments, or other advertised remedies offer any additional benefit.

Rational Approach To Care

Magic does not exist in the field of health care, and there is no such thing as a natural “cure” for cancer. Testimonials that proclaim dramatic recoveries can seem heartfelt and convincing, but there are many reasons why you need to be skeptical of them—even when they come from sincere patients.

Not every patient who claims recovery from cancer ever had cancer in the first place. Who made the diagnosis? Unless a patient obtains a reliable positive diagnosis of cancer, claims of recovery are questionable. A number of people have enjoyed lucrative careers based on unsubstantiated claims of remarkable cancer recoveries.

Another important fact is that physicians can’t predict with certainty how long a cancer patient will live. If a patient is given only six months to live, but is now living in his/her second year, is it a “remarkable recovery,” or is it simply a poor prediction by the doctor?

When people live longer than expected, they may attribute their survival to an unconventional treatment, just as people who live to be 100 may claim that a glass of wine or some other daily practice kept them alive. But just because someone claims that smoking (or anything else) “worked wonders” for them doesn’t make it true. Some smokers die at 50 and some may live to be 100, but after studying thousands of smokers, researchers know that the average smoker dies about seven years sooner than the average nonsmoker. Genetics, early life exposure to chemicals, and other factors have significant impact on health and longevity. But many people who reach advanced age prefer to attribute their longevity to a quirk in their behavior or some other relatively trivial lifestyle habit.

Patients frequently misattribute the reasons for their recoveries. It is not uncommon for a patient who has had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor to claim that a natural remedy, supplement, or treatment was the reason their cancer disappeared. When a cancer patient tries many different treatments, including mainstream therapies, no one knows why they live longer than expected. A certain number of people do beat the odds. These people often claim that the most recent therapy “cured” them, and then they become living advertisements for that therapy. People who die while undergoing the same treatment aren’t around to say that it did not work for them.

What do the following alternative therapies—immunotherapy, urine vaccine therapy, homeopathy, anti-neoplaston therapy, Livingston therapy, Evers therapy, 714x, Issels’ whole body therapy, Hoxsey therapy, Di Bella therapy, hydrazine sulfate, American Biologics therapy, DMSO therapy, Revici therapy, Gonzolez therapy tumour vaccines, Kelly therapy, Iscador, ozone or oxygen therapy, hyperthermia, Immuno-Augmentative Therapy (IAT),live-cell therapy, aboriginal therapies, laser resonance, bio-electric therapies, and Nieper therapy—have in common? None of them provide documented benefits for cancer patients.

Alternative therapies and treatments need to be evaluated using the same rigorous analysis that is used to evaluate conventional drugs and therapies. In “Ineffective Anti-Cancer Remedies” , I describe flaws in some of the most common alternative therapies.


1. Haggans CJ, Hutchins AM, Olson BA, et al. Effect of flaxseed consumption on urinary estrogen metabolites in postmenopausal women. Nutr Cancer 1999; 33(2):188-95. Dabrosin C, Chen J, Wang L, et al. Flaxseed inhibits metastasis and decreases extracellular vascular endothelial growth factor in human breast cancer xenografts. Cancer Lett 2002; 185(1):31-7. Thompson LU, Chen JM, Li T, Strasser-Weippl K, Goss PE. Dietary flaxseed alters tumor biological markers in postmenopausal breast cancer. Clin Cancer Res 2005 May 15;11(10):3828-35.

2. Patterson RE, Neuhouser ML, Hedderson MM, et al. Types of alternative medicine used by patients with breast, colon, or prostate cancer: predictors, motives, and costs. J Altern Complement Med 2002; 8(4):477-85.

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