Cancer cures with complementary medicine? No, it’s ineffective and can kill

cancer cures

As I have mentioned before, I occasionally answer questions on Quora regarding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) cancer cures. Of course, there are few, if any, CAM cancer cures that actually do what they claim. If they did work, they’d just be medicine.

Of course, many of the answers provide answers that are supported by scientific evidence – CAM cancer cures do not work. Of course, there are a few scam artists answering the questions who make outlandish claims about cancer cures. And the number of times someone claims that cannabis is one of the best cancer cures is ridiculous – the evidence is extremely weak (see Note 1).

A paper was recently published that examined the survivability of individuals with curable cancers that refused conventional cancer treatments and chose complementary and alternative medicine. We will get to that article, but spoiler alert – CAM doesn’t work and may be dangerous.

What is complementary and alternative medicine?

CAM is any “medical” treatment that is not supported by robust scientific evidence or incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Most complementary and alternative medicine have no clinical effects beyond placebo (see Note 2), and it cannot treat any serious medical condition. CAM is pure pseudoscience.

CAM is known by its other names – quackery, quackademic medicine, snake oil, woo, or junk medicine. CAM quacks invent absurd pejorative names for evidence-based medicine just to create a silly false balance – terms like allopathy, conventional medicine, or Western medicine. You science-based readers will see through this nonsense, and understand what they really mean is “evidence-based medicine, but we prefer our pseudoscientific medicine.”

CAM includes traditional Native American remedies, traditional Chinese medicine (like acupuncture), chiropractic, homeopathy, New Age nonsense, and many other kinds of woo. Of course, many CAM scammers push their cancer cures, none of which have been shown to work.

CAM is popular because it provides false hope to those interested. These quacks can make outrageous claims about cancer cures because they can play to fears of cancer patients about surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. These scammers promise cures that are easy, but these “therapies,” in fact, don’t work.

As Tim Minchin famously said,

You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?


Cancer primer

Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth which can invade or metastasize to other tissues and organs. Although people use tumor and cancer interchangeably, not all tumors are cancer. There are benign tumors that do not metastasize and are not cancers.

The National Cancer Institute claims that there are over 100 types of cancer.  Cancer Research UK states that there are over 200 types of cancer.  The American Cancer Society lists over 70 types of cancer (although some are more classes of cancer rather than a single type).  Wikipedia lists over 180 different cancers.

The variance in number results from the lack of precise definitions for some cancers. So researchers may group several different cancers into one heading. But clearly, there are up to 200 or more different cancers.

Furthermore, each of these cancers has a different etiology (cause), pathophysiology (development), treatment and prognosis. When someone is called a “cancer researcher,” they are rarely studying all cancers, but they’re studying one small part of the story of one of the 200 or so cancers.

Cancer usually requires numerous, up to 10, independent genetic mutations in a population of cells before it can become a growing, metastatic cancer. Each mutation is selected, as in natural selection, because it provides some benefit to the cancer cell, such as causing blood vessels to supply the cells for nutrition and oxygen, or the ability to divide rapidly, whatever the feature is.

A recent study published in the journal Science makes a strong case for random chance as the most important factor in cancer development. According to the study, the vast majority of cancers are just a simple error in DNA replication. If this is so, developing one of the 200 (or more) different cancers may be unavoidable, despite a “healthy lifestyle” or attempting to “boost” your immune system.

Geneticist Bert Vogelstein and mathematician Cristian Tomasetti, at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, conducted the study, a follow-up to an earlier one, which arrived at the same conclusion. The researchers wanted to know whether replications errors were behind most cancers, versus other factors, such as tobacco.

The researchers found, after examining 32 different kinds of cancer, that 66% of these cancers were a result of chance mutations in cells, 29% resulted from the environment, and 5% from inheriting a mutation.

These mutations aren’t “naturally” a part of the cell’s physiology. Moreover, these mutations can have a lot of different causes – environmental (like smoking or UV radiation), viral (hepatitis B and human papillomavirus are the most famous), heredity, and maybe other things. These mutations are more or less random, and they can’t be prevented by anything special–if only it were that easy.

There are a few things you can do to prevent cancer, such as quitting smoking, staying out of the sun, getting your hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations, not drinking alcohol, keeping a low body weight, and eating a balanced diet. But even if you are a paragon of healthy living, a random mutation in some cell in your body can lead to cancer.

One last thing. A lot of our ideas about what may or may not cure cancer is based on preclinical research, which very rarely is brought into clinical trials or is successful in clinical trials. In fact, there seems to be a lot of evidence that it is difficult, if not impossible, to repeat the preclinical studies, so it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accept the results of them. Simply, a lot of research that is publicly touted often ends up meaning nothing.

Oh, one more thing. Big Pharma isn’t hiding a secret cure for “cancer.” But they have brought the world thousands of effective treatments, in combination with evidence-based oncology, that has led to a substantial reduction in the cancer mortality rate over the past two decades.

Now, that CAM cancer cures are dangerous paper

The study, by Skyler B Johnson, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine, was published in JAMA Oncology in July 2018. The researchers examined a huge database of cancer patients over a 20-year period of time – it included an impressive 2 million individuals. They sorted to through the records to compare patients who used alternative medicine to treat their cancer to a matched sample of individuals who relied upon evidence-based cancer treatments.

I also want to emphasize that the researchers specifically selected for individuals who had easily treatable cancers.

Let’s cut to the chase – after controlling for confounding variables, that is, variables that can influence both the cause and the effect, individuals who utilized CAM for cancer treatment were statistically much worse off.

  • CAM users had a much lower chance of surviving 5 years after cancer diagnosis.
  • They were 2X more likely to die of cancer.
  • Less than 70% of CAM users were alive seven years after diagnosis. This compared to more than 82% of those who relied upon evidence-based medicine who survived seven years.
  • The mortality risk for those individuals who used CAM increased every year that they avoided standard cancer therapy.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the study found that CAM had a negative effect on cancer patients. CAM is worthless, it has no effect on health. However, what the researchers did state is that those individuals who preferred CAM were refusing or delaying conventional cancer treatments that actually work.

Because CAM is worthless, it probably doesn’t matter if the patient uses it along with conventional cancer therapy. It is amusing that many patients will give credit to the CAM therapy rather than the conventional one when their cancer goes into remission. Of course, most of us know the scientific facts about it.

Like I wrote in a previous epidemiological study, this is an observational study. It cannot show causality, except when it does. Moreover, size matters – this is a 2 million person study which allows us to see small statistical differences.

Summary of CAM cancer cures

If you have a cancer diagnosis, use real evidence-based medicine to treat it, not CAM quackery. Despite patient fears of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, the evidence has shown us that they work and that the mortality rate for many cancers continues to drop every year. The trope that Big Pharma, Big Hospital, and Big Oncology are hiding the one cure to cure them would be amusing if it weren’t so dangerous.

Let’s be clear – complementary and alternative medicine is worthless. The evidence that it provides cancer cures just doesn’t exist – the best, most robust, highest-quality evidence shows the way we treat cancer is best done by real physicians with real backgrounds in oncology.


  1. If any compound of the marijuana plant can actually treat cancer, it will be isolated by real medical researchers, they will create a method to deliver that component directly to the site of the cancer, they will test it for efficacy and toxicity, and then seek FDA approval. Anecdotes and weak pre-clinical studies for any of the claimed cancer cures are nearly valueless to real science-based medical treatments for cancer.
  2. Many people overstate the value of placebos – officially, a placebo means that the effect is nothing more that can be found by giving the patient a sugar pill. The effect is almost always psychosomatic, so placebos effects are more prevalent with neurological conditions like pain, although the evidence that CAM can treat pain is laughably inconsistent. However, placebos have never been shown to treat cancer, mend a broken bone, cure an infectious disease, save a trauma victim, or do anything for other serious medical conditions. In science, anything with a “placebo effect” is considered a failure, and it would never receive FDA approval. The placebo effect is simply a myth.


Coffee health benefits – will not save your life, but it is safe and delicious

coffee health benefits

I am an admitted coffee aficionado. I love the taste. I love the warmth. No, I don’t drink those maddening caramel strawberry double shot nonfat iced frappucinos – I like my coffee hot with a splash of cream and some very safe aspartame. Nevertheless, I’ve never thought much about coffee health advantages – it never seemed relevant to me.

I remember directing a clinical trial at a large teaching hospital in Seattle, WA back in the late 1980s, and there was a Starbucks kiosk in the lobby. I know most of you would think “what’s so great about that?” But, it was nearly 30 years ago, and Starbucks wasn’t a thing that it is today – I know some coffee snobs hate them, but 30 years ago, good coffee was unknown to most of the USA. Well, unless you lived in Seattle, apparently.

That kiosk started my love of coffee. I tried different coffee makers and methods of brewing coffee. Over the years, I’ve settled on a French press (as it is known in Canada and the USA, a coffee plunger in Australia and New Zealand, or a cafetière in France and the UK) for my coffee, which probably makes me a coffee snob.

I’ve written about the coffee health effects previously. And, in August 2018, a new paper was published that seemed to indicate that drinking lots of coffee lowered your risk of mortality. And, of course, websites across the internet chimed in with the great news. But did it really say that? Of course, your coffee-addicted ancient dinosaur will take a look.  Continue reading “Coffee health benefits – will not save your life, but it is safe and delicious”

Sexual promiscuity and the HPV vaccine – debunking an ignorant myth

sexual promiscuity and the HPV vaccine

There is a myth pushed by the anti-vaccine religion that the HPV vaccine leads to sexual promiscuity. I’ve debunked this fable previously, using peer-reviewed research, but you know the anti-vaccine zombie tropes – they never really die, and they always come back to life.

Let’s look at a couple of new studies that, once again, debunk the myth that sexual promiscuity is linked to the HPV vaccine. There is no link. Period. Full stop. Continue reading “Sexual promiscuity and the HPV vaccine – debunking an ignorant myth”

Cochrane Nordic kerfuffle – HPV vaccine is still safe and effective

Cochrane Nordic

If you’ve been following the old dinosaur’s articles over the past few weeks,  you’d know the ongoing kerfuffle between the anti-vaccine group located within Cochrane Nordic and the parent Cochrane Collaboration. Cochrane Nordic attacked a well done systematic review, published by Cochrane, of safety and effectiveness of the HPV vaccine without merit.

In case you are unfamiliar with the organization, Cochrane Collaboration is a critically important source of evidence-based medicine and a useful tool in providing analytical evidence that can debunk pseudoscientific beliefs. Cochrane’s goal is to organize research data and publications in a logical way that helps physicians and researchers make appropriate decisions about a proposed new therapy, medication or clinical idea.

According to Cochrane, their mission is:

…to provide accessible, credible information to support informed decision-making has never been more important or useful for improving global health. In the Internet age, people have much greater access to health information, but little way of knowing whether that information is accurate and unbiased. We do not accept commercial or conflicted funding. This is vital for us to generate authoritative and reliable information, working freely, unconstrained by commercial and financial interests.

Mostly, Cochrane produces systematic reviews, which utilizes systematic methods to collect published data, critically analyze research studies, and then synthesize data from numerous published studies in an attempt to eliminate bias and increase the power of the data that includes a larger number of patients than one study alone.

In the hierarchy of biomedical research, systematic reviews rank at the very top. They are, without a doubt, the most powerful pieces of scientific research available in medicine. To be fair, Cochrane is not perfect. They have made egregious errors in systematic reviews of acupuncture quackery in the past. Like all scientific literature, one must examine a systematic review (whether published in Cochrane or any other journal) with a critical eye.

So this whole Cochrane Nordic kerfuffle may seem like an internecine feud of no importance to the world of science. And it would have been, except it has evolved into one of those tropes that the anti-vaccine religion uses to attack the cancer-preventing HPV vaccine.

Let me end this introduction with a simple statement backed by a mountain of science – the HPV vaccine is demonstrably safe and demonstrably effective.

Let’s take a look at this whole Cochrane Nordic nonsense. Continue reading “Cochrane Nordic kerfuffle – HPV vaccine is still safe and effective”

Pertussis vaccine at birth is safe and effective – Australian study results

pertussis vaccine

One of the concerns about DTaP vaccine (for protection against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis or whooping cough) is that it is given at 2 months, and during that time, the infant is susceptible to whooping cough. A new clinical trial provides evidence that giving the monovalent pertussis vaccine at birth is both safe and can protect the infant until the first DTaP vaccination.

Let’s take a look at this new study. Continue reading “Pertussis vaccine at birth is safe and effective – Australian study results”

Alcohol health effects – drinking any amount is bad, but is the science convincing?

alcohol health effects

I am fairly certain that most of the feathered dinosaur’s readers have read articles about alcohol health effects. It’s bad. It’s good. It prevents heart attacks. It causes cancer. It reduces risks of Sasquatch attacks but increases risks of alien abductions.

I know some of you are thinking that science never gets this right. Who are you to believe? An ancient feathered dinosaur? Your favorite news website? Your next door neighbor? Alien Sasquatch?

Well, there was a recent article published that employed a powerful systematic analysis of the body of published evidence surrounding alcohol health effects. Spoiler alert – drinking any amount may not be good for your health. Continue reading “Alcohol health effects – drinking any amount is bad, but is the science convincing?”

Flu vaccine myths – an epic rant about dumb asses from Mark Crislip

flu vaccine myths

We’re coming upon the 2018-2019 flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. And every flu season, for the past seven years, I reprint Dr. Mark Crislip‘s epic rant about Dumb Ass healthcare workers who invent flu vaccine myths in an effort refuse to receive the flu vaccine.

Dr. Crislip’s humorous compilation of these flu vaccine myths, which were originally published in A Budget of Dumb Asses, describes the different types of vaccine-refusing healthcare worker Dumb Asses. I resurrect this list every year at the beginning of the flu season not only for humor (because it is funny) but also to point the finger at flu vaccine deniers who also happen to be healthcare workers.

Any nurse, pharmacist, therapist, physician, or surgeon that refuses the flu vaccine by relying upon pseudoscientific nonsense about the vaccine rather than protecting their patients and themselves is appalling. I may be harsh, but maybe their employment ought to be terminated for their lack of concern about patients.

But the flu vaccine myths true believers aren’t just healthcare workers. You know neighbors, friends, family, and even fellow vaccine supporters who refuse to get the flu vaccine. And they rely on the same ridiculous myths as healthcare workers. And everyone forgets that the flu is a dangerous disease – 172 children died of the flu during the 2017-18 flu season.

The flu season is just starting, and it’s almost impossible to not find a place to get the vaccine. Your family doctor, clinics, pharmacies, and many other places currently have the flu vaccine. And I am not a hypocrite – I get my flu vaccination next week. Of course, my healthcare insurance provides them out for free to all members.

And if you think you can prevent or cure the flu with vitamin C, echinacea, or bone broth (yes, it’s a thing), they don’t work. You are not going to be able to boost your immune system to destroy the flu virus unless you get vaccinated.

We’ve dispensed with many of the cherished flu vaccine myths of the anti-vaccine religion. Moreover, many studies have shown that getting the flu vaccine can improve health outcomes. But too many people refuse this life-saving vaccine.

Continue reading “Flu vaccine myths – an epic rant about dumb asses from Mark Crislip”

HPV vaccine adverse effects and the European Medicines Agency

HPV vaccine adverse effects

Despite the robust body of evidence supporting HPV vaccine safety and effectiveness, the European Medicines Agency (the European Union’s version of the US FDA) began a review of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines “to further clarify aspects of their safety profile,” although the agency also points out that this review did not “question that the benefits of HPV vaccines outweigh their risks.” In other words, the EMA examined the HPV vaccine adverse effects, real or imagined.

After a few months of investigation, the EMA came to a conclusion about HPV vaccine adverse effects – there were no major ones. Let’s take a look at this story.
Continue reading “HPV vaccine adverse effects and the European Medicines Agency”

Cochrane HPV vaccine systematic review – responses to anti-vax criticism

Cochrane HPV vaccine systematic review

In May 2018, I wrote an article about a Cochrane HPV vaccine systematic review that provided solid evidence that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was safe and effective. I considered the review to be one of the seminal pieces that support the use of the cancer-preventing vaccine. Moreover, most scientists in the biomedical field consider Cochrane systematic reviews (see Note 1) as near the pinnacle of the hierarchy of biomedical research.

Then, in early August 2018, several anti-vaccine, and more particularly vehement anti-HPV vaccine, “researchers” at Cochrane Nordic, a branch of the Cochrane Collaboration, went on the attack against the HPV vaccine. They published a paper in BMJ Evidence Based Medicine that blasted the Cochrane HPV vaccine systematic review.

I thought that this critique was without merit. Moreover, nothing they wrote diminishes the quality of the original Cochrane HPV vaccine systematic review. Once again, that systematic review provided us with solid, high-quality support of the fact that the vaccine is, indeed, safe and effective.

Even though the anti-HPV vaccine group provided some apparently cogent criticisms, it was clear that they had an agenda. Well, there has been more backlash against the anti-vaccine “researchers” in a long post by a scientist who studies and analyzes systematic reviews. And Cochrane itself responded to the criticism. Let’s take a look.  Continue reading “Cochrane HPV vaccine systematic review – responses to anti-vax criticism”

Mediterranean diet could prolong life of elderly – solid supporting evidence

Mediterranean diet

In general, I’m unconvinced about fad diets, unless there is some really powerful published evidence in support. And those are rare. However, I think that there is some good evidence that the Mediterranean diet may be valuable to improving outcomes for several outcomes like cardiovascular diseases. Now we see that there is moderate evidence that the Mediterranean diet could add years to the life of the elderly.

There is a new study published that examines whether the Mediterranean diet could prolong the life of the elderly. Let’s take a look. Continue reading “Mediterranean diet could prolong life of elderly – solid supporting evidence”