There are few, if any, alternative “medicines” that have been shown to treat cancer effectively in large, randomized, double-blind clinical trials. If they actually worked, we’d just call it medicine. But people continue to search for miracle cures in alternative medicine, probably because treating cancer with science-based medicine is difficult without any guarantees.
The facts are that alternative medicine treatments for cancer have been shown to not work or have not been shown to work. Either way, it would be unethical or even immoral for anyone to recommend these unscientific treatments.
A paper was published a few years ago that examined the survivability of individuals with curable cancers who refused conventional cancer treatments (usually surgery plus adjuvant therapies like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and/or immunotherapy) and chose alternative medicine.
We will get to that article, but spoiler alert — alternative medicine doesn’t work for cancer and may be dangerous.
What is alternative medicine?
Alternative medicine is any treatment that is not supported by robust scientific evidence in the form of a large clinical trial that would be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Most complementary and alternative medicines have no clinical effects beyond a placebo (see Note 1), and they cannot treat any serious medical condition. Mostly, alternative medicine is pure pseudoscience.
Complementary and alternative medicine (as it is sometimes described) is known by its other names – quackery, quackademic medicine, snake oil, woo, or junk medicine. Alternative 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 “We prefer our pseudoscientific medicine.”
Alternative medicine includes traditional Native American remedies, traditional Chinese medicine (like acupuncture), chiropractic, homeopathy, New Age, and many other kinds of pseudoscience. Many alternative medicine adherents push their cancer cures, but they rarely have any data or evidence to support the use of these alternative medicines.
Alternative medicine is probably popular because it provides false hope for people looking for a cure for their diseases or conditions. Alternative medicine quacks can make outrageous claims about cancer cures because they can play to the fears of cancer patients about surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.
But the most important thing is, repeating what I said above, alternative medicine has either been shown to not work, or it hasn’t been shown to work.
Because, as Tim Minchin famously said,
You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?
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 by natural selection, because it provides some benefit to the cancer cell, such as causing blood vessels to supply the cells with 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 simple errors in DNA replication. If this is so, developing one of the 200 (or more) different cancers may be unavoidable, despite a “healthy lifestyle” or any other attempt to reduce your risk of cancer.
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 replication 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. The research I mentioned above indicates that 66% of cancers are just random, and there’s not much you can do about it.
One last thing. A lot of our ideas about what may or may not cure cancer are 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 have led to a substantial reduction in the cancer mortality rate over the past two decades.
Cancer “cures” from alternative medicine are dangerous
In a study published in July 2018 in JAMA Oncology, Skyler B Johnson, MD, Yale School of Medicine, and colleagues examined a huge database of cancer patients over 20 years – 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 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 alternative medicine for cancer treatment were statistically much worse off.
- Alternative medicine users had a much lower chance of surviving 5 years after a cancer diagnosis.
- They were 2X more likely to die of cancer.
- Less than 70% of alternative medicine users were alive seven years after diagnosis. This result was 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 when they avoided standard cancer therapy.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the study found that alternative medicine harmed cancer patients. Alternative medicine is worthless, it does not affect the health of the cancer patient. However, what the researchers did state is that those individuals who preferred alternative medicine were refusing or delaying conventional cancer treatments that work.
Because alternative medicine 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 complementary and alternative medicine therapy rather than the conventional one when their cancer goes into remission. Of course, most of us know the scientific facts and realize that it was science-based medicine that treated cancer successfully.
This was an observational study; thus, it cannot show causality.
If you have a cancer diagnosis, use real science-based medicine to treat it, not alternative medicine quackery that has never been shown to work. Despite individuals’ 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. Evidence that supports its effectiveness in treating cancer 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.
The false promises of alternative medicine, which make it seem that there are secret cures that are easier to use, can lead to a higher risk of death from cancer. I know that it may be enticing but always look for real scientific evidence, not testimonials or anecdotes. It may save your life if you ever get cancer.
- Many people overstate the value of placebos — officially, a placebo means that the effect is nothing more than can be found by giving the patient a sugar pill. The effect is almost always psychosomatic, so placebo effects are more prevalent with neurological conditions like pain, although the evidence that alternative medicine can treat pain is extremely inconsistent. However, placebos have never been shown to treat cancer, mend a broken bone, cure infectious disease, save a trauma victim, or do anything for other serious medical conditions. In medical research, anything with a “placebo effect” is considered a failure, and it would never receive FDA approval. The placebo effect, outside of pain and a few neurological conditions, cannot treat any disease or condition.
- Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Complementary Medicine, Refusal of Conventional Cancer Therapy, and Survival Among Patients With Curable Cancers. JAMA Oncol. 2018 Jul 19. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.2487. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 30027204.
- Tomasetti C, Li L, Vogelstein B. Stem cell divisions, somatic mutations, cancer etiology, and cancer prevention. Science. 2017 Mar 24;355(6331):1330-1334. doi: 10.1126/science.aaf9011. PubMed PMID: 28336671.
- Tomasetti C, Vogelstein B. Cancer etiology. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science. 2015 Jan 2;347(6217):78-81. doi: 10.1126/science.1260825. PubMed PMID: 25554788; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4446723.
- Tomlinson I, Sasieni P, Bodmer W. How many mutations in a cancer? Am J Pathol. 2002 Mar;160(3):755-8. PubMed PMID: 11891172; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1867158.
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