What Is Alternative Medicine?

Alternative medicine refers to unproven or disproven methods used instead of standard medical treatments to prevent, diagnose, or treat cancer. They have either not been thoroughly tested in clinical trials, or they have been tested and found not to work against cancer. Some examples of alternative methods include special diets, certain supplements and herbs, high doses of vitamins, homeopathy, laetrile, and Rife machines. Many alternative medicine providers suggest a combination of these types of treatments. 

Standard treatments are based on research studies that show that the treatment is safe and effective against one or more types of cancer. There are also standard treatments to help with many of the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment. Examples of standard treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, hormonal therapy, and supportive medicines to help with pain, nausea, or other problems.

Alternative medicine is different from complementary therapies. Complementary methods are used along with and support standard treatments. Alternative methods are used instead of standard treatments. 

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, while Western medicine is the non-traditional way.

Why do people with cancer use alternative methods?

People with cancer might think about using alternative methods for a number of reasons:

  • They want to do everything they can to fight the cancer.
  • They are seeking a treatment approach that might have fewer side effects.
  • They want to be able to control how their cancer is treated.
  • They prefer alternative theories of health and disease, as well as alternative treatments.
  • They may have seen information online or in other places that sounds helpful.

Some alternative methods may be appealing because they use your own body and mind, or things found in nature. Some even promise wellness using methods that sound simple, natural, and without side effects, which is rarely true of standard cancer treatments.

While some alternative methods rarely cause harm, others can have dangerous or even life-threatening side effects. Even when there are few harms with a particular alternative treatment, research has shown that people who use alternative methods instead of conventional cancer treatment for the most common curable cancers have a greater risk of dying from their cancer.

By definition, alternative methods have not been studied enough to show that they are effective in treating cancer, or they have been studied and shown to not be effective. Methods that are proven by research to effectively fight cancer tend to be used in standard medicine fairly quickly.

Using alternative medicine is your decision

The decision to use alternative methods is an important one, and it’s yours to make. We have put together some suggestions to help you think through the issues and make the most informed and safest decision possible.

There tends to be much less high-quality, objective information about alternative methods than about mainstream treatments. This is one of the reasons that it is sometimes impossible to say much about whether an alternative method is likely to help you, or even how safe it might be. This is why you should try to learn as much as you can about each treatment before you use it. Even if some information isn’t available, the limits of what is known can help you make your decision.

The choice to use alternative methods is yours. You can use them more safely if you:

  • Look for reliable, unbiased sources of information whenever possible. Some research has shown that one in three articles about cancer treatment on social media include incorrect or even harmful information.
  • Learn about the risks and benefits of each therapy from reliable scientific sources.
  • Talk with your doctor about your plans. Ask what is known about risks and benefits, and find out about possible interactions with mainstream treatments.
  • Know for sure whether you are giving up proven treatment for an unproven one. (If you decide to do this, ask your doctor what options might still work for you if the alternative treatment doesn't.)
  • Watch out for signs of fraud or misleading claims. Be aware that many of those offering alternative treatments have a vested financial interest in making them sound appealing.
  • Keep in mind that most alternative methods have not been tested for safety in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, so the possible effects on a fetus or nursing child are mostly unknown.
  • Talk with your child’s doctor before starting your child on an alternative treatment.

You can find more information about specific types of alternative medicine on the National Cancer Institute website.

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. 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.  

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):139-145.

 

References

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.  

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):139-145.

 

Last Revised: August 31, 2021

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