The deadly truth behind alternative cancer therapies
By: Chantel Kowalchuk
Cancer is terrifying. We are all aware of the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that comes with cancer, either through first- or second-hand interaction with this awful illness. Unfortunately, some of that physical and emotional burden is not due to cancer itself, but is instead related to the treatments.
Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are some of the most common treatments for cancer, and though they have definite therapeutic efficacy, they frequently result in terrible side effects such as nausea, hair loss, and fatigue. To make matters worse, those treatments are not effective for all patients, resulting in exposure to the trauma of the treatments and their side effects without achieving the desired outcome. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were therapies that could cure cancer, without any side effects or trauma? Well, there are! At least, so say the websites of the health professionals found through a simple Google search of “alternative cancer therapies”.
Reading about alternative cancer treatments online, it is easy to be amazed by the variety of treatments available that apparently cure cancer. Vitamin C, specific diets, probiotics, sunshine, and turmeric are all treatments described on one website that discusses natural cancer treatments and claims to have 15 million monthly visitors.1 A Google search for “alternative cancer therapies” results in some poorly made webpages full of sensational writing, strongly indicating they are scams. Yet alongside these are legitimate looking websites including statements from doctors and health professionals, which explain that these alternative treatments will cure cancer. These claims are backed up with a bevy of patient testimonies and scientific sounding explanations, with the perfect combination of scientific terminology and buzzwords. Some of these claims even cite scientific papers (though these papers are predominantly published by the same groups selling the treatments, and have small sample sizes). It is understandable how, particularly in a vulnerable state, one could believe these claims.
However, believing those claims can turn a potentially treatable disease into something unmanageable, waste valuable time, and eventually cost a life, according to a recent study from the Yale School of Medicine.2 The data on efficacy of alternative medicine is minimal, so a group of researchers in the lab of Dr. James Yu took it upon themselves to determine if there were actually any therapeutic benefits from alternative medicine. They followed 281 cancer patients who chose to undergo only alternative treatments, and matched them to 560 patients who opted for traditional treatment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, patients who chose alternative medicine had a significantly higher risk of death compared to conventional cancer treatment. The most dramatic risk was in women with breast cancer, where choosing alternative treatment put them at a five-fold increased risk of death.2
Opting for alternative treatment is not a rare decision among patient populations. In addition to the aforementioned study from Yale, which followed 281 patients who had opted for alternative treatments,2 a study from one Norwegian hospital found that 20% of its cancer patients chose alternative treatments,3 while researchers from Alberta found that 1 in 100 breast cancer patients choose alternative treatments.4 A variety of reasons could lead a person to choose alternative therapies, such as fear, trust in anecdotal evidence (we all have a friend’s brother’s teacher who was cured by meditating with crystals), high costs of conventional treatments, hatred of “big pharma”, or belief in a cancer conspiracy. Furthermore, treatments such as vitamin C and turmeric, which are familiar and a part of our daily lives, are easier to understand and less intimidating than radiation and radiotherapy. However, misinformation or lack of information for the patient remains an underlying issue that can lead patients to choose life-risking alternative cancer therapies.
Everyone is entitled to their own choices about their health; however, these choices must be educated choices, based upon the correct and comprehensive information on treatment options, side effects, alternatives, and risks. Everyone should have the right to make informed decisions, and the current state of cancer treatment and patient education does not provide that opportunity. There is not enough research in the field of alternative cancer therapies to conclude they should be completely disregarded; currently, while it is not legal to sell a product claiming to specifically cure cancer, it is legal to can make implicative statements, such as a product which “activates the body’s ability to heal itself”, and support this with anecdotal evidence. The FDA has issued over 90 warning letters to companies marketing cancer cures over the past 10 years, 14 issued within their most recent 2017 report.5 Yet there are plenty of companies that continue to promote their products as cancer cures, thanks to the Internet and social media. These alternative treatments are not going anywhere.
Thus, the responsibility falls to the doctors and health practitioners to ensure their patients adequately understand why they suggest a specific treatment, from both the risks and rewards viewpoint. Health practitioners need to be proactive and educate patients on the potentially deadly consequences of choosing alternative therapies. It is essential that patients can understand the difference between science-based medicine and anecdotes, the placebo effect, and the risks of relying on the Internet as a primary source of health-related information. Once all that information is given to the patient, then the choice is truly theirs. Hopefully, they will choose evidence-based medicine, supported by controlled clinical trials and statistical significance; if they continue to opt for alternative therapies, that is their prerogative. Regardless, a patient should not make a choice which could determine life or death without knowing all the facts. A licensed physician needs to be the one to provide that information, not Google.
- Dr. Axe. 10 Natural Cancer Treatments Revealed [Internet]. [cited 2017 Sep 7]. Available from: https://draxe.com/10-natural-cancer-treatments-hidden-cures/
- Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its Impact on Survival. JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst [Internet]. 2018 Jan 1 [cited 2017 Sep 7];110(1):54–71. Available from: http://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/doi/10.1093/jnci/djx145/4064136/Use-of-Alternative-Medicine-for-Cancer-and-Its
- Risberg T, Kaasa S, Wist E, Melsom H. Why are cancer patients using non-proven complementary therapies? A cross-sectional multicentre study in Norway. Eur J Cancer [Internet]. 1997 Apr [cited 2017 Sep 7];33(4):575–80. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9274437
- Blackwell T. Cancer patients are losing valuable time — and risking their lives — with alternative therapies, doctors say. National Post [Internet]. 2015 Nov 15; Available from: http://nationalpost.com/health/cancer-patients-are-losing-valuable-time-and-risking-their-lives-with-alternative-therapies-doctors-say
- Commissioner O of the. Press Announcements – FDA takes action against 14 companies for selling illegal cancer treatments. [cited 2017 Sep 7]; Available from: https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm554698.htm