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Alternative Medicine and Cancer

Right up front, let me say if alternative medicine therapies could cure cancer they wouldn’t be alternative. Conspiracy theory alert: there is no plot on the part of oncologists, radiation therapists, pharmaceutical companies, et al. to keep lifesaving alternative therapies just beyond your reach so they can control your lives (and pocketbooks).

If the mainstream physicians involved in cancer care can be accused of anything, it’s the intellectual laziness of their reluctance to learn something about integrating conventional and alternative therapies for their patients. But even this is changing. Each year I receive notification of more and more courses for physicians that begin with the phrase “Integrating Alternative Therapies…” So the overall outlook is good.

Most oncologists know their patients will be using alternative therapies, including vast amounts of nutritional supplements, though patients often keep mum about it, fearful they’ll be told to stop immediately. After swinging back and forth for years, the current thinking among the medical establishment goes something like this: if you’re a cancer patient, nutritional supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs, etc.) are perfectly fine along with consciously healthful eating. However, don’t take supplements at the same time you’re undergoing radiation or chemotherapy because current evidence suggests that some supplements (especially antioxidants) may reduce the effect of treatment, either by protecting cancer cells or by interfering with the way treatment drugs are supposed to act in your body.

Most oncologists welcome wholeheartedly the help of nutritionists, body workers, acupuncturists, and mind-body therapists. Oncologists I’ve spoken to have no problem with energy therapies such as Reiki. They’re skittish about herbs (western, Chinese, Ayurvedic) and homeopathy simply because they know nothing about them.

The only fully integrated cancer center I’m aware of, a group that feels completely comfortable with both conventional and alternative therapies (chiropractic, naturopathic medicine, mind-body medicine, and nutrition), is Cancer Treatment Centers of America, whose closest hospital is in Zion, IL.

Alternative doesn’t equal cure
Despite internet hype to the contrary, no alternative therapies have ever been proven to cure cancer. Sorry if you think otherwise, but when “cured” patients are actually tracked down it turns out they either didn’t have cancer in the first place or didn’t mention they had also undergone a full course of conventional treatment. If you’re so inclined, search “alternative cancer treatment” at amazon.com and glance through a few of the 1,600-plus results. Virtually all of them suggest their own particular add-on (diet, supplement, chant) to conventional therapy. The handful that do encourage you to stop conventional care and buy their product/go to their particular clinic in Mexico, if not outright frauds like Hulda Clark’s The Cure for All Cancers (Clark herself died of cancer in 2009), are intellectually dishonest.

Large numbers of curious and desperate cancer patients take this tour of the various Tijuana cancer clinics, many of which have been around for decades. If you’re ever inclined to explore this option for yourself or a loved one, please first read Choices in Healing by Michael A. Lerner. A lifelong advocate of complementary therapies and founder of the non-profit Commonweal, the learning and support center in Bolinas, CA, Lerner relates his own experience with the Tijuana clinics. At the time, he himself had been diagnosed with cancer and had not wanted to proceed with conventional care. Visiting each of the clinics as a potential patient, he found, sadly, that they were all alike. Great promises of a cure, but when he asked to speak with patient survivors or look at actual evidence, suddenly everything was private and off-limits. He left highly disillusioned.

Lerner remains a major advocate of complementary cancer therapy. Along with conventional care, his own ultimate cancer cure involved several alternative modalities. Commonweal, through its Cancer Help Program, continues to offer week-long retreats for patients newly diagnosed with cancer. Their Institute for the Study of Health & Illness, founded by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, is designed for physicians, nurses, and medical students who want to incorporate complementary therapies into their practice.

One final point: although there are no nutritional supplements known to cure cancer (despite the claims about Essiac, mistletoe, venus fly trap, shark cartilage, and on and on), there is some interesting research into using certain supplements to prevent cancer in high-risk patients and prevent recurrence in those already treated.

I’ve already written about how regular users of multiple vitamins have a lower cancer incidence than non-users. But also, if you’re a member of a family with a very high cancer risk, have years of being exposed to cancer-causing toxins (like tobacco smoke), or are a cancer survivor (and hence more prone to a second cancer than someone who’s never had cancer at all), then consider augmenting with green tea, milk thistle, and tumeric (curcumin) supplements.

Each has been shown–in lab studies, mind you, not yet in large-scale patient clinical trials–to reduce the conversion of normal cells to cancer cells (by binding and detoxifying carcinogens), to delay the spread of cancer to other parts of the body (by reducing inflammation and angiogenesis, in which the cancer increases its own blood supply), and to reduce cell damage from carcinogens (by scavenging free radicals).

I hope you never need any of this information, but if you or a friend does you’ll know where to find it.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD 


Leave a Comment

  1. Linda Silbert says:

    Thank you David for this information. I do have a dear friend who was just diagnosed with cancer and this is very helpful.
    Wishing you a Happy and Healthy New Year!

  2. Wendy Chan says:

    Dr. Edelberg:

    I’d like to just pass on info about my Chinese herbalist. He does not advertise nor is his phone number listed.
    People just find him as he has herbs for all illnesses (caps, tabs, and teas). He treats cancer patients. I once met an R.N. with colon CA and a terminal patient being treated. I can forward more info if you are interested. I stay pretty well and healthy with his herbs and nutritionals.

  3. Adele Meyer says:

    I’m wondering about the term/concept/diagnosis “cancer” itself. So many different causes posited, so many different preventatives proved. Similar symptoms seem to be grouped together under the huge umbrella “cancer,” which seems to me really a group of different diseases. It’s as though every respiratory problem were called “tuberculosis.”

  4. angie says:

    In Skokie, across from Old Orchard shopping mall, is a wonderful integrative cancer center-Block Cancer Center. I didn’t discover this wonderful facility until after battling my 2nd cancer. Dr. Blocks book, Life Over Cancer, echoes many of your sentiments. Most hospitals release you after surgery, chemo and radiation without educating you as to what you can do to stave off the beast of cancer. The Block Center has helped me to look at my diet and lifestyle in a nurturing proactive way!

  5. Peter says:

    I was wondering if the good Doc was familiar with or could comment on Andreas Moritz’s findings regarding Cancer. That it is not a disease but the body’s defense/survival mechanism. He does not advocate chemical dumps….

    In Cancer Is Not A Disease, bestselling author and internationally acclaimed health expert, Andreas Moritz, proves the point that cancer is not a separate illness, but the result of specific, identifiable causes. Removing these causes sets the precondition for the body, mind and emotions to become healed, meaning, whole again.

    Medical intervention, on the other hand, attempts to remove the symptoms of disease with almost complete disregard to their cause(s). This is not only unscientific and unethical, but also life endangering. Each year over 900,000 people in the U.S. lose their lives needlessly to medical treatment. Even one single dose of chemotherapy or radiation can be fatal for both the tumor and the patient. The success record of modern cancer therapy is dismal, even less than the weakest placebo response. On average, remission occurs in about 7% of all cancers, not because of, but despite these aggressive treatments.”


  6. Dr E says:

    Hi Peter
    I think it’s safe to say that cancer is not one disease but an expression of several different mechanisms in the body that share a common event, the creation of a rogue cell that then grows without control. Andreas Moritz (who died a few weeks ago of unknown cause) believed that cancer was not an illness but the result of exposure to a specific agent. I really don’t think conventional cancer docs would disagree with this. Unfortunately, his ideas, though interesting and certainly worth exploring, as yet have not been proven in actualy clinical trials

  7. Imran Ali says:

    Dr E,
    In terms of prevention, have you seen all the studies coming out on the link between animal protein and cancer (heart disease)? The main one people hear about is the “China Study” which was covered in the documentary Forks Over Knives (free to view on Hulu). I’ve seen a lot of similar studies on nutritionfacts.org. Have you looked into this? Wondering what you think.


  8. William Bengston has done excellent research curing cancer in mice using a non-religious laying-on-of-hands approach. Others are studying “spontaneous remissions” (which are more frequent for cancer than for most other conditions). see http://www.bengstonresearch.com and http://www.spiritgate.com. Clinical outcomes in people are promising as I have helped 7 people recover from cancer using Bengston’s methods. Seems to work better for certain situations than others.
    Suzanne Clegg

  9. Ann Raven says:

    This is informative. I remember the film about Andy Kaufman going to Mexico for cancer therapy. In his dilemma, I imagine that one would be ready to try anything!

  10. Andrea Holliday says:

    All of your columns are great.

    Perhaps it’s too late at night, but I can’t help asking if you’ve noticed that your habitual closing phrase has been adopted on an institutional scale by Walgreen’s.

    Every time I pay for a purchase there now, an employee in a (surprisingly) attractive cornflower-blue uniform adjures me to “Be well.”

    Gotta say, it beats the old Hyde Park Walgreen’s (before recent makeover), which had really bad karma. But their “be well” routine kind of creeps me out. Somehow I don’t have the same faith in WG’s motives that I have in yours…


  11. I’m glad you mention that cancer treatment does not always equal a cure. My friend has cancer and goes to an alternative cancer treatment facility which seems to be going well. She likes the alternative treatment because it helps her stay healthy throughout the process. Great post, thanks.

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