The Truth About Alternative Medical Treatments

Almost 40% of Americans believe cancer can be cured through alternative therapies alone, according to a survey conducted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. This is alarming because evidence shows that people who use alternative therapies in place of standard cancer treatments have much higher death rates.

The terms “alternative,” “complementary,” and “lifestyle” medicine are used to describe many kinds of products, practices, and treatments that are not part of standard or traditional medicine. Alternative therapy refers to non-standard treatment used in place of standard treatment, while complementary therapy usually means methods used along with standard treatment. Lifestyle medicine is a newer field that describes its approach as preventing and treating illness through healthy eating, physical activity, and other healthy behaviors without the use of medicine.

In some cases, complementary methods can help cancer patients feel better when used alongside standard treatment and with the advice of a health care provider.  Alternative and complementary therapies are often appealing because they use your own body, your own mind, or things that may be found in nature. But sometimes these methods wrongly claim to prevent, diagnose, or treat cancer even when they have not been proven to work through scientific testing.

And in the worst cases, some alternative or complementary therapies may be dangerous or even deadly. Some may also interfere with how standard cancer treatment works. If you’re thinking about using any non-traditional therapy, it’s important to first discuss it with your health care team.

Alternative and complementary therapy can pose dangers

Some of these therapies promise wellness using a method that sounds simple, wholesome, and without harmful side effects. But this is not always true. Some concerns include:

  • Delaying surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or other traditional treatment by using an alternative therapy can allow the cancer to grow and spread to other parts of the body.
  • Some complementary and alternative therapies have been reported to cause serious problems or even deaths.
  • Certain vitamins and minerals can increase the risk of cancer or other illnesses, especially if too much is taken. Some companies don’t follow Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules about making claims and labeling supplements properly. In some cases, harmful contaminants can get into dietary supplements because of how they are manufactured or handled.

How complementary medicine can be helpful and safe

Some complementary methods have been studied and shown to help people feel better while they’re undergoing standard cancer treatment under a doctor’s care. Examples might include meditation to reduce stress, peppermint or ginger tea for nausea, or guided imagery to help relieve stress and pain during medical procedures.

Many complementary treatments are unlikely to cause harm and won’t interfere with your cancer treatment. Here are some examples:

  • Acupuncture may help with mild pain and some types of nausea.
  • Art or music therapy may promote healing and enhance quality of life.
  • Biofeedback uses monitoring devices to help people gain conscious control over physical processes that are usually controlled automatically, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, sweating, and muscle tension.
  • Massage therapy can decrease stress, anxiety, depression, and pain and increase alertness, according to some studies.
  • Prayer and spirituality help many people with the emotional side effects from cancer.
  • Tai chi and yoga have been shown to improve strength and balance in some people.

Warning signs

If you are thinking about using any method instead of standard evidence-based medical treatment, it is important to talk to your health care team first. And watch out for these warning signs:

  • Be suspicious of any treatment that says it can cure cancer or other difficult-to-treat diseases (such as chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, etc.). It’s important to remember that those claims have not been proven.
  • Be suspicious of any treatment that claims to offer benefits with no side effects. Even herbs and vitamins have possible side effects. If the treatment is marketed as having no side effects, it has likely not been studied in rigorous clinical trials, where side effects would be seen.
  • Be suspicious of promoters who attack the medical or scientific community or who tell you not to use standard or traditional medical treatment.
  • Beware of treatments you can get in only one clinic, especially if that clinic is in a country with less strict patient protection laws than those in the United States or the European Union.
  • Beware of terms such as “scientific breakthrough,” “miracle cure,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy.” Beware of personal stories that claim amazing results but provide no actual scientific evidence.
  • Find out about the training and education of anyone supporting the treatment or using it to treat you. Find out if they are medical doctors and whether they are experts in cancer care or complementary medicines.
  • Find out whether scientific studies or clinical trials have studied this treatment in people (not just animals), and what side effects have been reported. Find out if the treatment could harm you or interact badly with your other medicines or supplements.
  • Learn whether the findings have been published in trustworthy journals after being reviewed by other scientists who are experts in the same field, or if they have been promoted only in the mass media, such as books, magazines, the internet, TV, infomercials, and radio talk shows.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

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.


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