- Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC)
- Coriolus versicolor
- Docosahexaenoic Acid
- Eleutherococcus senticosus
- Ginkgo biloba
- Music Therapy
- Mistletoe Extract, Injected
- Panax ginseng
- Relaxation Therapies
- Shark Cartilage
- Social Support
- Therapeutic Touch
- Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC)
- Chamomile Cream
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ 10 )
- Docosahexaenoic Acid
- Milk Thistle
- Relaxation Therapy
- Sea Buckthorn
- Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine
- Vitamin E
Not only is cancer the second leading cause of death in the United States (after heart disease), its insidious nature gives it a special terror. Most diseases give warning in the form of escalating symptoms, while others strike so suddenly that there’s no time to brood on it. Cancer follows a different, stealthier path. A person who feels perfectly well may come back from the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of potentially fatal cancer and plenty of time to fear what comes next.
Conventional treatments for cancer also have frightening qualities to them: disfiguring surgery, arduous chemotherapy, and treatment with invisible radiation. In many cases, when cancer is found early enough, conventional treatment can lead to a permanent cure. But often the prognosis is given in statistics—a percentage chance of survival—or, worse, in months remaining to live.
No wonder, then, that people turn to alternative medicine. It would be wonderful if there were some powerful alternative approach that could rout cancer at its root. Unfortunately, the reality is that no alternative treatment offers a sure and simple route to recovery. Worse still, there are plenty of unscrupulous people who will take advantage of a cancer victim’s desperation. Even the most scrupulous providers of alternative cancer therapy mislead in one sense: they display a conviction and enthusiasm even though they do not know, in truth, whether their approach really works. It simply isn’t possible for a medical practitioner to fairly judge the effectiveness of a therapy from apparent clinical results. Only double-blind, placebo-controlled studies can do that. (For information on why this form of study is essential, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies? )
It is possible, of course, that some alternative therapies for cancer may truly work, even if they haven’t yet been proven. However, we may never know which ones are real and which ones offer only false promises. Proper studies require money and patience with the scientific process, and proponents of alternative cancer therapies may lack one or both of those. In addition, ethical considerations make it difficult to study an unproven therapy for a fatal disease, when therapies that provide a chance of cure are available. For this reason, most studies of alternative therapies for cancer have involved adding a natural treatment to a standard cancer regimen; alternatively, they enrolled individuals who have already failed to respond to existing methods. These latter circumstances could potentially hide the benefits of an effective natural therapy. If a treatment only worked in the absence of chemotherapy, for example (as some alternative cancer therapy proponents claim about their methods) or could only cure early cases of cancer, these ethical obstacles would prevent researchers from finding out.
This article discusses the relatively small amount of information that is known from a scientific perspective about alternative treatments for cancer. We also discuss natural options that may reduce side effects of standard cancer therapies, as well as possible interactions between herbs and supplements and drugs.
Proposed Natural Treatments for Cancer
Various natural supplements have shown some promise for improving the effectiveness of conventional cancer therapy (specifically, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation ) or reducing its side effects. In most cases, however, the supporting evidence remains weak, and the most rigorous studies have often failed to find benefit.
Note: If you are receiving cancer treatment, do not use any herbs or supplements except under the supervision of your physician.
For information on treatments to prevent cancer, see the Cancer Prevention article.
Improving Survival and Quality of Life With Conventional Cancer Treatment
Numerous natural therapies have been proposed for enhancing the cancer-fighting effects of standard therapies. However, as noted above, most of the supporting research falls short of the necessary standard for proof: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study .
Based on the belief that sharks don't get cancer, shark cartilage has been heavily marketed as a cure for cancer. While this is a myth (sharks do get cancer), shark cartilage has, in fact, shown some promise. Shark cartilage tends to inhibit the growth of new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis. Since cancerous tumors must build new blood vessels to feed themselves, this effect might be beneficial.
Social Support and Other Psychological Factors
Vitamin C proponents have criticized these trials on various grounds, but the fact remains that there is as yet no reliable positive evidence for vitamin C in cancer.
PC-SPES for Prostate Cancer
PC-SPES is a formulation of eight natural substances: seven are plants and one is a fungus. The name is derived from the common abbreviation for prostate cancer (PC) and the Latin word spes , meaning "hope."
After its commercial launch in 1996, PC-SPES received increasing interest from the general public and prostate cancer researchers. Preliminary evidence suggested that it has significant effects on prostate cancer cells, perhaps due in part to its estrogen-like action.
There is little doubt that DES is active against prostate cancer, but it presents a variety of risks, including blood clots in the legs. The other two pharmaceutical contaminants might actually reduce the risk of blood clots (which may be why they were covertly added), but present various risks all on their own. For these reasons, we strongly recommend against using PC-SPES at all.
Other Natural Treatments
Literally hundreds of herbs and supplements have been shown in test tube studies to fight cancer cells. However, it is a long way from a test tube to a human body, and such findings are not at all meaningful.
In this subsection we discuss several natural supplements that have received at least preliminary study in humans. Keep in mind that none of the positive studies cited below reached the level of rigor required to truly show a treatment effective. (Most lacked a control group, for example.) In contrast, several properly designed studies failed to find benefit.
Panax ginsengPanax ginseng
Reducing Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Various herbs and supplements have shown promise for reducing the side effects of chemotherapy.
Many chemotherapy drugs work by interfering with rapidly dividing cells. Unfortunately, cancer cells aren’t the only cells that divide rapidly. The intestinal tract constantly rebuilds its lining, and chemotherapy may interfere with that process. The result: gastrointestinal side effects, such as mouth sores, nausea, loss of appetite, and diarrhea.
Several herbs and supplements have shown promise for alleviating these conditions, although none have been definitively proven effective.
Diarrhea and Other Gastrointestinal Side Effects
probioticLactobacillus rhamnosus E. coli
Other Side Effects of Chemotherapy
In preliminary studies, various antioxidants have shown promise for preventing heart damage and other side effects of the drug doxorubicin. See the Doxorubicin article for details.
Sea buckthorn berry has been advocated for reducing side effects of chemotherapy, but the evidence that it works is far too preliminary to be relied upon at all.
The Homeopathy Database also has information about this topic.
Reducing Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
Although the symptoms are generally less intense than with chemotherapy, radiation therapy can also cause problems, such as diarrhea, skin damage, and fatigue. Certain supplements and alternative therapies may offer benefit.
As with chemotherapy, sea buckthorn berry has been advocated for reducing side effects of radiation therapy, but again reliable evidence is lacking.
This topic is also discussed in the Homeopathy Database , in the radiation therapy support chapter.
Treating Side Effects Caused by Breast Cancer Surgery
Many women experience lymphedema (chronic arm swelling caused by damage to the lymph drainage system) following breast cancer surgery. Natural treatments for this condition include oxerutins , citrus bioflavonoids , and OPCs . For more information see the Surgery Support article.
Hot Flashes After Mastectomy
Women who have had breast cancer surgery frequently experience annoying hot flashes. Estrogen treatment is not an option, as it might increase the risk of cancer recurrence.
Other Side Effects Caused by Breast Cancer Surgery
Chinese herbSalvia miltiorrhiza
Treating Weight Loss Caused by Cancer or Cancer Treatment
Cancer can cause a condition called tumor-induced weight loss (TIWL), in which symptoms of starvation occur despite apparently adequate nutrition. The cause is thought to be a particular form of inflammation caused by the cancer. Cancer chemotherapy can also cause weight loss. For information on natural treatments that may be helpful, see the Undesired Weight Loss article.
Numerous herbs have been claimed effective for treatment of cancer, including:
- Cat’s claw
- Flaxseed (based on lignan content)
- Oregon grape
- Red clover
Various herbal combinations have also been promoted for the treatment of cancer, including the Hoxsey cancer cure, Essiac, and Jason Winter's cancer-cure tea. Again, however, there is no reliable evidence that they really work.
Herbs and Supplements to Use Only With Caution
Herb and Supplement Interactions With Specific Cancer Drugs
Various herbs and supplements may interact adversely with drugs used to treat cancer. We strongly recommend that individuals under treatment for cancer do not use any herb or supplement except under physician’s supervision. A few important categories of potential interactions are described here. Follow the links to the indicated article for detailed information.
The herb St. John’s wort interacts with many medications, including various chemotherapy drugs.
The drug methotrexate causes the body to become deficient in folate . For this reason, people who take methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis , juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriasis are sometimes advised to take folate supplements. Studies indicate that in those conditions, use of folate does not impair the action of the drug. However, no studies have as yet established that folate supplements are safe to take with methotrexate when it is used to treat cancer.
Herbs That May Increase Breast Cancer Recurrence Risk
Women who have had breast cancer are at high risk for a recurrence. As noted above, use of estrogen promotes the development of breast cancer, and for this reason it is off limits. However, certain natural products may present a similar risk. Numerous herbs and supplements have estrogen-like properties, including the following:black cohosh is probably not estrogenic.
- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 07/2012 -
- Update Date: 08/03/2012 -