Can I Safely Use an Alternative Method?

If you are thinking about using an alternative method instead of standard treatment, be sure to talk to your doctor first. It can be a challenge to find trustworthy information about the safety and effectiveness of alternative treatments. Also, some of these treatments can require a lot of time and money, and they may require travel away from your family and friends.

Choosing alternative treatment instead of mainstream cancer treatments might put you at serious risk. Delays or interruptions in standard treatment can give the cancer more time to grow. Even early stage cancers can become hard to treat successfully if proven treatment is delayed long enough. And even if your cancer has reached a stage where a cure might not be possible, it’s important to know that standard care can often still offer a lot in terms of helping to control the cancer and keep you comfortable.

Questions to ask about an alternative method

If you are thinking about using an alternative method instead of standard treatment, learn as much as you can about it. Ask these questions:

  • What claims are made about the treatment? Be very suspicious of any treatment that says it can cure any cancer. Claims that a treatment can cure all cancers or that it can cure cancer and other difficult-to-treat diseases are sure to be false.
  • What are the qualifications of the people offering the treatment? Are they medical doctors? Are they recognized experts in cancer care? If you’re seeing an alternative practitioner, find out about their training and education.
  • Have scientific studies been done in humans to find out if this treatment is safe and if it works? What side effects have been reported?
  • Have the findings been published in journals that have scientists who are experts in the same field review them?
  • How is information about the method given? Is it promoted only in the mass media, such as books, magazines, online, social media, TV, infomercials, and radio talk shows, rather than in scientific or medical journals?
  • Is the method widely available for use within the cancer-care community? Once a treatment is found to be safe and helpful, it’s usually widely adopted by health professionals. Beware of treatments you can only get in one clinic, especially if that clinic is in a country with fewer patient protection laws than those in the United States or the European Union.
  • What’s known about the safety of the treatment? Could it be harmful or interact badly with your other medicines or supplements?

Avoiding fraud and questionable treatments

It's important to remember that most alternative treatments are considered to be unproven, because they have not been studied enough to show they are safe and effective against cancer. Some alternative treatments may be considered disproven, because studies that have been done haven't shown them to be effective. If those treatments continue to be marketed to people with cancer, concerns about quackery and fraud are raised.

Quackery refers to the promotion of unproven or disproven methods that claim to prevent, diagnose, or cure cancer. 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 (anecdotes) as evidence of their effectiveness and safety. Many times, the treatment is claimed to cure other diseases as well.

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.

Some of the practitioners and companies that offer alternative treatments know that they’re operating illegally. Some will put drugs into an “all natural” supplement or use treatments that are not tested. Some might offer treatments from countries where regulations are less strict than in the United States. Some who practice in the US and run into legal issues might simply move to another part of the country to offer their treatments again, sometimes under a different company name.

Use the checklist below to spot treatments that might be questionable. Keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. If you’re not sure, talk to your doctor or nurse before moving ahead.

  • Does the treatment promise a cure for all cancers?
  • Are you told not to use recommended or standard (mainstream) medical treatment?
  • Does the treatment claim to offer benefits without having any side effects? Even herbs and vitamins have side effects. If the treatment is marketed as having no side effects, it has not likely been studied in rigorous clinical trials, where side effects would be seen.
  • Is the treatment only offered by one person or clinic?
  • Does the treatment require you to travel to another country?
  • Do the promoters use terms like “scientific breakthrough,” “miracle cure,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy”?
  • Are you offered personal stories of amazing results, but no actual scientific evidence?
  • Do the promoters attack the medical or scientific community?

Before investing your time and money in any alternative medicine, please talk to your doctor about whether or not it may help you.

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.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Integrative Medicine. Cancer.net. Accessed from 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 (2019) A systematic review of complementary and alternative medicine in oncology: Psychological and physical effects of manipulative and body-based
practices. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0223564. 

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. Cancer.gov. 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. Cam.cancer.gov. Accessed from  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. 

References

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Integrative Medicine. Cancer.net. Accessed from 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 (2019) A systematic review of complementary and alternative medicine in oncology: Psychological and physical effects of manipulative and body-based
practices. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0223564. 

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. Cancer.gov. 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. Cam.cancer.gov. Accessed from  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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