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Alternative Treatments for Cancer: Do They Work?

John Bankston John Bankston January 2, 2022
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

When it comes to cancer, sometimes the only thing worse than the treatment is the disease. Some cancers are very aggressive, spreading rapidly throughout your body. Halting that spread often requires equally aggressive therapies with deeply unpleasant side effects. It makes sense that a newly diagnosed patient would prefer a less miserable path whether that option is swallowing herbs or extreme dieting. However if you or a loved one are battling cancer, the most important consideration about alternative treatments for cancer is: Do they work?


Cancer and Cures


Cancer is the result of a genetic mutation. Although cells with damaged DNA usually die off, with cancer they multiply. Over time these mutated cells pass along their flawed genetic code and can even attack healthy cells. These mutations may form a cancerous tumor. Although the word itself triggers waves of anxiety, many forms of cancer are fairly benign. Some skin cancers can be removed with a quick office visit. Others are so slow growing they don’t require any treatment as health care professionals employ watchful waiting –– spending years observing and testing without aggressive intervention.


However, other forms of cancer earn the disease its terrifying reputation. For instance, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just 10%. Someone facing this diagnosis can potentially endure agonizing treatment that may extend their life span but won’t offer remission or improved quality of life. Women with the BRCA1 mutation or BRCA2 mutation face a 72% risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some time during their life. Some with the mutation even opt for preventative mastectomies.


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Breast Cancer - Risk Reduction Mastectomy

Breast Cancer - Risk Reduction Mastectomy

Chemotherapy, where powerful chemicals are deployed to destroy cancer cells, dates to the 1940s. The use of radiation to kill cancer cells dates back even further. Both have similar side effects including nausea, vomiting, and hair loss which can be permanent. It makes sense that a newly diagnosed cancer patient would seek a more modern or at least a less miserable form of treatment.  Although singling out the efficacy of either chemo or radiation is difficult because so many other variables are involved, the survival rate for many forms of cancer continues to climb. Health experts often connect that, in part, to traditional treatment. This doesn’t change the fact that when confronted with a cancer diagnosis most patients immediately seek out alternatives. The Internet, of course, always provides many ––  delivering a host of novel but unproven approaches.


Risks of Alternative Therapies  


Because the terms “complementary” and “alternative” are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to understand how they differ. Complementary treatments are used alongside traditional medicine. They aren’t intended to replace it. Instead, a patient might take up yoga or meditation to cope with cancer-provoking anxiety. Acupuncture may relieve nausea; exercise may improve their outlook. None of these can cure cancer or put the disease into remission. They can improve outcomes so long as they aren’t substitutes for traditional medicine


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Cancer - Alternative Treatments

Cancer - Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments are ones that replace traditional therapies like surgery, chemo, or radiation. Because governments in the U.S., UK, Europe, and numerous other first-world countries crack down on claims of cancer cures with fines and even imprisonment, alternative treatments for cancer are often offered in less-regulated nations. If you need a passport to get treatment, it’s a warning sign. Relying on ancient cures and unlikely herbs won’t help either. If you are undergoing chemo, extreme dieting from a belief that cancer feeds on sugar can make treatment less effective and even more miserable. 


Unfortunately, in a survey done for the American Society of Clinical Oncology nearly 40% of respondents believe cancer can be cured using alternative therapies alone. Perhaps equally alarming, around one-third of cancer patients add their own alternatives to traditional treatment –– and most of them don’t tell their oncologist. Famous folks who sought alternative treatments include Andy Kaufman and Steve Jobs. Their deaths may have still occurred if they’d pursued traditional treatment, but they definitely make the case that a cure didn’t happen. If people with nearly unlimited resources aren’t cured by alternative treatments, why would there be hope for those with less money or connections? 


Indeed, a recent study showed that the young, affluent, and educated are the most likely to deploy alternative or complementary treatments. In most health care scenarios, this is the cohort with the highest survival rate. Yet in the study, they had a higher rate of death. Indeed, even people using complementary medicine had a higher risk of death from curable cancers than those using traditional medicine exclusively because they are more likely to resist standard care. 


Communicating online with someone offering a cancer cure may seem easier than speaking to your oncologist. Yet it’s vitally important not only that you talk to your health care provider but are clear-eyed about your path. Do your own research. Read from reputable medical journals, and look at the evidence. Speak to cancer survivors who aren’t recommended by whatever facility is promoting a miracle cure. Finally, realize that you are absolutely entitled to forgo aggressive therapies like chemo so long as you recognize that it could well be an end-of-life decision.

Doctor Profile

John Bankston


John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.

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