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It can sometimes be hard to believe that alternative treatments we might hear about from family and friends have not been shown to work. There may be convincing stories of a person who was told they had cancer, then, after using this treatment, was cured and healthy again.
It's certainly understandable to want to believe these hopeful stories. But stories about amazing cures cannot be thought of as evidence that a treatment works. Most of the time, there’s no way to be sure the stories are true.
Treatments that do not make claims to treat specific diseases or side effects may not have to go through scientific studies to show they are safe and effective. This is true for many dietary supplements. There are requirements about how dietary supplements must be made and labeled, but not requirements that they be tested to find out whether they actually help, or whether they are safe to use.
Some providers of alternative methods are careful to not make public claims about their effectiveness and safety. This allows them to avoid the testing that standard methods need to go through.
Some people choose alternative therapies because they think these treatments don't have harmful side effects. This is often not true. Some alternative therapies have been found to cause serious or even life-threatening side effects. Others have simply not been tested in rigorous clinical trials. But since most of these problems are not reported to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they are not studied.
There are those who think that treatments derived from folk remedies that have been used for thousands of years must be safe and work. However, just because a treatment method has been used a long time does not mean that it is safe and effective.
Many traditional therapies have not been studied thoroughly, as this type of research wasn't often done in the distant past. When scientific studies are not done, it can be hard to tell when an illness is truly helped by a treatment. Alternative treatments that are given for illnesses that go away on their own may be given credit for curing the person. Or the treatment might make the person feel better for a short time but have no lasting effect.
Finally, keep in mind that many of the methods that were used in the distant past were simply the best option available at the time, because more effective treatments had not yet been developed.
It’s quite common for people to feel better after almost any kind of treatment that they expect to help them. This is called the placebo effect. The placebo effect means that if the person expects the treatment to help, they may feel better after getting it – even if the treatment does nothing for the underlying problem. This effect usually lasts only a short time, and seems to have something to do with the body’s own ability to relieve pain or certain other symptoms for up to a few hours.
The placebo effect may explain one of the reasons that some people keep using certain types of alternative treatments that don’t help the underlying disease. If they feel better for a few hours, it may be worth it to them. But the treatment may not have the same effect on everyone who tries it.
Controlled human studies (clinical trials) are the best way to find out if a treatment works. Clinical trials to show that a treatment works must include large groups of people, compare new treatments to those known to work, control who gets which treatment, and carefully measure the benefits and harms of each treatment. This can take a good bit of time and money. But clinical trials are vital to show that a treatment is safe and effective.
When looking for studies, it is important to know whether a source can be trusted. It is best to look for studies published in reliable, mainstream medical journals. Be careful with articles shared through social media, as they often contain misleading or even harmful information. For more information about sources of treatment information, see Evaluating New Cancer Treatments.
If it’s hard to find information from a reliable source about a cancer treatment method, it might mean that the method has not yet been studied enough to show whether it is safe and works in people.
Some websites or journals might be set up just to promote certain types of treatment. They may offer pseudo-science – statements that look and sound scientific, but aren’t. This can make it harder to learn about these treatments, since the information put out by these types of sources can make it sound like they work and have few or no side effects. And companies that offer products for sale may have “research” on their website that sounds good but was never reviewed by experts in the field. So, the results may not be trustworthy.
The bottom line is that if you can’t find reliable information from researchers who don’t have a stake in the product, it’s very likely that the research proving that it works in humans has not been done. That means there’s no proof that the method works in people.
Along with the American Cancer Society, the following is a partial list of websites and phone numbers of reputable groups that provide reliable information on alternative therapies*.
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Toll-free number: 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332)
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Information Center
National Cancer Institute (NCI) Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Toll-free number: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) TTY: 1-800-332-8615
United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Toll-free number: 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357)
National Council Against Health Fraud
*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Integrative Medicine. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/integrative-medicine on April 20, 2021.
Buckner CA, Lafrenie RM, Dénommée JA, Caswell JM, Want DA. Complementary and alternative medicine use in patients before and after a cancer diagnosis. Curr Oncol. 2018 Aug;25(4):e275-e281.
Calcagni N, Gana K, Quintard B. A systematic review of complementary and alternative medicine in oncology: Psychological and physical effects of manipulative and body-based practices. PLoS ONE. 2019:14(10): e0223564.
Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Use of alternative medicine for cancer and its impact on survival. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2018; 110(10): 121–124.
Johnson SB, Parsons M, Dorff T, et al. Cancer misinformation and harmful information on Facebook and other social media: A brief report. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2021 Jul 22: djab141. Epub ahead of print.
Knecht K, Kinder D, Stockert A. Biologically-based complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use in cancer patients: The good, the bad, the misunderstood. Front Nutr. 2020 Jan 24;6:196.
National Cancer Institute. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Last updated November 24, 2020. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam on April 6, 2021.
National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Health Information for Patients. Accessed at https://cam.cancer.gov/health_information/for_patients.htm on August 18, 2021.
Wilkinson JM, Stevens MJ. Use of complementary and alternative medical therapies (CAM) by patients attending a regional comprehensive cancer care centre. J Complement Integr Med. 2014 Jun;11(2):139-45.
Last Revised: August 30, 2021
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