Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

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What kinds of cancer treatment are there?

Proven treatments

Did you know that most new drugs made in research labs – even those that kill cancer cells in test tubes and animals – are eventually shown to not work for treating cancer in humans? We know this because new medical treatments are assumed to be ineffective until they are proved, by clinical studies in humans, to be useful. Doctors who use mainstream or conventional cancer treatments focus on results of clinical studies (human testing). They don’t prescribe drugs just because a drug company claims they work. Treatments must be proven in studies that are carefully designed, supervised, and reviewed by leading experts in cancer treatment. Patient success stories, marketing brochures, and testimonials aren’t enough evidence to start prescribing a new drug or using a different treatment.

Even the results from a single clinical trial are not enough to prove a treatment works. Evidence is built up, often starting with lab studies (cells in a dish, for example), then animal studies, then small studies in humans. These are done before larger clinical trials (human studies) are finally started. The clinical trials are needed to show whether a treatment actually works and is safe enough to use in people.

Along the way, study results are looked at to see how well they match other studies. Differences in results are carefully examined. Methods are reviewed to be sure that rigorous scientific procedures were used. All this helps doctors understand more about the treatment – and if it works, when and how to use it.

Proven treatment refers to treatments that have been tested following this pathway and found to be relatively safe and useful. The results of such studies are published in credible peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals are those in which the articles are studied by other doctors or scientists in the field to be sure that they meet certain standards before being accepted and published. Treatments that are tested in these ways are sometimes called evidence-based. They are generally adopted by doctors as part of mainstream medicine. Mainstream medicine (the usual type of treatment people get from medical doctors) may also be called standard treatment, conventional medicine, allopathic medicine, or Western medicine.

For the most part, the treatments used in mainstream medicine have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Research and investigational treatments

Research or investigational treatments are therapies that are still being studied in clinical trials. Clinical trials are research projects in which volunteers help doctors find out whether a new treatment works and is safe for patients. Before a new drug or other treatment is tested in patients, it’s first studied in the lab and in animals. If it’s found safe and promising in these early tests, it can be tested in humans. If the studies show that the benefits of the treatment outweigh the side effects, the Food and Drug Administration may approve it for regular use. Only then does the treatment become part of the standard mainstream treatment.

During the course of this research, the drug or treatment may be available to volunteers in the clinical trial along with mainstream medical treatment. Only one part of the treatment would be unproven, while the rest is traditional or conventional care. (To learn more about research and testing, see our document called Learning About New Cancer Treatments. For more on taking part in human testing, see our document called Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know.)

Complementary therapy

Complementary therapy is used along with standard or mainstream medical treatment. Some complementary therapies may help relieve certain symptoms of cancer, relieve side effects of cancer treatment, or improve a patient’s sense of well-being. Examples might include meditation to reduce stress, peppermint or ginger tea for nausea, and guided imagery to help relieve stress and pain during medical procedures. Over time, methods such as massage therapy, relaxation, and meditation have been proven useful in scientific studies, and have been incorporated into mainstream treatment as well to improve quality of life. Some other complementary methods are used by patients seeking to improve wellness or relieve symptoms and side effects despite lack of credible evidence of effectiveness.

The American Cancer Society urges patients who are thinking about using any complementary or non-mainstream therapies to first discuss it with their health care team.

Integrative therapy

Integrative therapy is a term often used to describe the combined use of proven mainstream treatments and certain complementary methods. You may have heard the term integrative oncology. Some cancer treatment centers and clinics now offer this option for patients who might be helped by complementary methods as well as mainstream treatments. Integrative oncology departments of leading cancer centers typically limit the complementary methods they provide to ones with low risk of significant side effects and some credible evidence of benefit in reducing symptoms or improving physical or psychological health.

Alternative therapy

Alternative therapy is used instead of mainstream treatment. Alternative therapies are either unproven because they have not been scientifically tested, or they have been disproved (that is, they have been tested and found not to work).

Disproved: treatments not supported by evidence

Disproved or disproven are terms that may be used to describe a treatment that has been studied enough to find out that it does not work for a given condition. In medical circles, such a treatment is described by saying that studies “do not support claims that the treatment helps” a certain type of cancer or a certain condition. These methods may cause the patient to suffer because they are not helpful, because they can delay the use of proven methods, or because they actually cause harm.

The American Cancer Society urges patients who are thinking about using any alternative or complementary therapy to first discuss this with their health care team. But if you’re thinking of stopping your regular cancer treatment and using an alternative method, it’s even more important that you talk with your doctor first. See the section “What are the risks of not using mainstream cancer treatment?

Fake treatment: quackery and fraud

Quackery refers to the promotion of methods that claim to prevent, diagnose, or cure cancers that are known to be false (disproven), or which are unproven and most likely false. These methods are often based on theories of disease and treatment that are contrary to accepted scientific ideas. Promoters of such methods often use patient testimonials as evidence of their effectiveness and safety. Many times, the treatment is claimed to cure other diseases as well as cancer.

Fraud goes a step beyond quackery. In this case, treatments are advertised deceptively by people whose main intent is to make money. Some of these treatment methods have been tested and found not to work. Some are known to be harmful. Others have not been tested, but the sellers still claim that they can help you.

If you suspect fraud in any kind of health treatment, you can contact the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is listed in the blue pages of the phone book under “US Government.” Look under the heading “Health and Human Services.” Or visit their website at www.fda.gov.

If the promoted treatment is a dietary supplement, the Federal Trade Commission is responsible for enforcing the laws about how it is marketed. (The FDA deals with how supplements are labeled. For companies or people offering other types of fraudulent treatments or services, other enforcement groups may be involved.) But many of these fraud-selling companies move to other countries, where they may find it easier to evade the authorities. You can report deceptive advertising and fraudulent practices to the FTC at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. (From there, you can choose “Complaint Assistant.”) For more on supplements and how to report problems with them, see our document Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

Other names and descriptions

Treatments that are not used in mainstream medicine may be described as unconventional, non-conventional, and non-traditional by mainstream medical doctors. These terms may be used to describe any complementary or alternative therapy. Some treatments, such as traditional Chinese medicine or Native American healing, are also used in complementary or alternative therapies. Of course, to the person who is part of the culture practicing these treatments, their native methods are usually called traditional and Western medicine is the non-traditional way.


Last Medical Review: 01/23/2014
Last Revised: 01/23/2014