Other common name(s): black salve, black and yellow salve, escharotics, escharotic therapy, botanical salve, Curaderm, Cansema
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Cancer salves are pastes, salves, or poultices applied to skin tumors or the skin over internal tumor sites. There are many kinds of formulas, which can contain up to 10 ingredients or more. Ingredients may include chaparral (Larrea tridentata), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), chickweed (Stellaria media), Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and other herbs, oils, and chemicals. They may be mixed in bases of olive oil, beeswax, pine tar, or other materials.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that salves are effective in treating cancer or tumors. In fact, some ingredients may cause great harm. There have been numerous reports of severe burns, disfigurement, and permanent scarring from some of these salves.
How is it promoted for use?
Some practitioners claim that cancer salves have the power to kill cancer cells or draw them out of the body and that salves can cure any type of cancer. Some of the companies that sell cancer salves claim their products can heal cancer without the need for conventional treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. One manufacturer has claimed the company's salves are successful at curing from 75% to 80% of cancer cases, and even 99% of one type of skin cancer. Other proponents claim their cancer salves have anti-tumor properties which cause no damage to healthy skin.
One salve called Curaderm is promoted as a cure for three types of skin growths -- solar keratosis, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Promoters claim that, unlike the escharotic salves, it will not leave scars. The cream contains solasodine glycosides, which are chemicals derived from Sodom's apple (Solanum sodomaeum), also called devil's apple and kangaroo apple. It also contains an aspirin-related compound that is normally used to treat warts, and other ingredients. Supporters do not claim the salve is effective against melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Curaderm is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
What does it involve?
For skin cancers, the salves are rubbed directly onto the tumor. For other types of cancers, the salves are rubbed on the skin over the internal location of the tumor. Because the salves are widely available, some people apply them at home; while others receive salve treatments from naturopaths (see our document, Naturopathic Medicine).
What is the history behind it?
The use of cancer salves to cure disease dates back centuries, perhaps even to ancient Egypt. The use of salves to treat cancer became fairly common in the 18th and 19th centuries. One 18th century English cancer surgeon, Dr. Richard Guy, used a black salve to treat dozens of cancer patients, particularly those with breast cancer. His claims of a high success rate were never verified. A later physician, Dr. Eli G. Jones, claimed he had miraculous results curing cancer patients using a salve made of figwort syrup. Many home-grown salve recipes have been handed down through families for generations.
More recently, salves have been sold by phone and mail order, and over the Internet. Books and Web sites also offer formulas for salves that can be made at home. Some of these claim that doctors or the FDA try to prevent them from sharing information on their treatments. In fact, the FDA forbids marketers from claiming that their treatment can cure or prevent cancer unless scientific studies have proven that the claims are true. Some vendors make such statements anyway.
What is the evidence?
The Curaderm Web site reports that clinical trials have been done in humans, but this claim refers to uncontrolled trials or studies that have not been published in conventional medical journals. Further clinical trials are needed to find out whether this preparation has any role in the treatment of non-melanoma skin cancer.
Otherwise, claims that cancer salves cure cancer are based on individual reports and testimonials. There have been no controlled clinical studies of cancer salves published in the medical literature, and available scientific evidence does not support claims that cancer salves can cure cancer or any other disease.
As for the claim that the cancer salves only affect abnormal tissues, pathologists have reported finding damage to healthy cells after cancer salves have been used.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
There have been numerous reports of severe scarring and burns from the use of cancer salves. Some have been severe enough to require reconstructive surgery. One report involving Curaderm states that, while the cream appeared to make a basal cell carcinoma go away, a later biopsy revealed that there were cancer cells left underneath the surface of the skin. In another case of salve treatment, the cancer initially appeared to have "healed" but later recurred in tissues underneath the original tumor, presumably because the cancer was never completely cured. As a result, the cancer had to be removed by a much more extensive operation than would have been required if standard treatment had been used right away.
Other doctors have reported cases in which salves have caused problems. One man used a black salve to treat a dark spot on his chest, which at first seemed to get better. Six months later the spot grew larger, and became painful and ulcerated. It was found to be a very serious form of skin cancer called malignant melanoma. Another man with advanced colon cancer used a black and yellow cancer salve on his abdomen (belly). After eight days, a skin ulcer formed and stool began to leak through the hole. The man had to be in the hospital and was unable to eat until the hole healed.
The FDA does not regulate cancer salves, but it sometimes becomes involved when individuals or companies make unproven health claims. The contents of different cancer salves vary and can contain potentially dangerous substances. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding may cause harm to their infants as well if medicines or herbs are absorbed through the skin. People who are allergic to the herbs or other ingredients in the salves may have allergic reactions to them. Using salves while postponing or avoiding standard medical treatment for cancer can have serious health consequences.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Barrett S. Don't use corrosive cancer salves (escharotics). Accessed at www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/Cancer/eschar.html on November 30, 2010.
Cham BE, Daunter B, Evans RA. Topical treatment of malignant and premalignant skin lesions by very low concentrations of a standard mixture (BEC) of solasodine glycosides. Cancer Lett. 1991;59:183-192.
Cienki JJ, Zaret L. An internet misadventure: bloodroot salve toxicity. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Oct;16(10):1125-7.
Jarvis WT. How quackery harms. Accessed at http://www.quackwatch.org on November 30, 2010.
McDaniel S, Goldman GD. Consequences of using escharotic agents as primary treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancer. Arch Dermatol. 2002; 138:1593-1596.
Moran AM, Helm KF. Histopathologic findings and diagnostic difficulties posed with use of escharotic agents for treatment of skin lesions: a case report and review of the literature. J Cutan Pathol. 2008 Apr;35(4):404-6.
Morris CA, Avorn J. Internet marketing of herbal products. JAMA. 2003;290:1505-1509.
Moss R. Herbs Against Cancer. New York, NY: Equinox Press; 1998.
Osswald SS, Elston DM, Farley MF, et al. Self- treatment of a basal cell carcinoma with "black and yellow salve". J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;53:509-511.
US FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Fiscal Year 2004. Accessed at http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ICECI/EnforcementActions/EnforcementStory/EnforcementStoryArchive/UCM091477.pdf on November 30, 2010.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 03/07/2011