Alternative therapies for cancer

Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

You may have seen the ads in the Sunday paper or on TV: “Try this all-natural remedy! Thousands already have!”

Some of these ads grab your attention with the headline, “Here’s something your doctors don’t want you to know.” I highly doubt that your doctor is interested in keeping secrets from you, especially if there was something safe and effective that could improve your health. In addition, the treatments promoted in these ads are typically untested, unproven, and largely unregulated.

While I rarely object to my patients pursuing “alternative remedies” that seem safe, I am concerned when the ads suggest that you can “throw away all those pills” your doctor recommended because the advertised treatment will make them unnecessary. That always seemed like a hazardous claim. A new study suggests that there is danger in relying on unproven treatments over those that have been well-tested.

The new study on alternative cancer treatments

Researchers analyzed data from nearly two million patients with cancer treated at accredited medical centers throughout the US. They only included patients with cancers of the breast, lung, colon, or prostate that had not spread to other areas of the body.

Compared with those who received only conventional cancer treatments (including surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, and/or hormone therapy), those who chose a “complementary” cancer treatment (such as herbs or acupuncture) along with at least one conventional cancer treatment:

  • tended to be younger, female, have higher socioeconomic status and educational level, and live in Pacific or Intermountain West regions of the United States.
  • declined additional conventional treatments more often. For example, chemotherapy was refused by 34% of those choosing unproven remedies, but by only 3% of the conventional treatment-only group.
  • did not live as long. The five-year survival was 82% in the unproven treatment group, and 87% in the conventional treatment group.
  • had a higher rate of death that appeared to be due to delay or refusal of conventional treatment.

While the difference in five-year survival was small, it was statistically significant. And if this were a comparison of two new treatments, a 5% difference would be considered important.

Caveats about this study

This study was not designed to directly compare non-conventional therapies with conventional ones, and the results do not mean that all unproven remedies are useless. In fact, an unproven treatment may become conventional if rigorous research proves its worth. There are many types of alternative treatments (including herbs, vitamins, homeopathy, yoga, and acupuncture) that might have different effects and have not yet been well studied. Importantly, this study did not examine the interaction of conventional and alternative treatments (which in some cases may cause problems).

In addition, this study did not actually find that complementary treatments along with conventional treatments were harmful. But it did suggest that relying on unproven remedies instead of conventional therapies might be.

Finally, this study did not examine all types of cancer, all types of treatments, or the impact of treatment on quality of life. Different results might have been observed if other outcomes of interest (such as quality of life) had been included.

The bottom line

If you have cancer and are interested in herbs, acupuncture, or other alternative treatments, talk to your doctor. Think twice before declining conventional treatments. But if you do decline recommended treatment, make sure you understand the pros and cons of doing so, including the possibility of shorter survival.

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

Related Information: Life After Cancer


  1. Bob

    The article raises points and much of the latest science in adding other disciplines to enhance outcomes is often found in complementary or alternative medicine and only now being adopted by conventional to some degree as the science is being done. For example vit c has been shown to decrease the side-affects of chemo and exercise is important to chemo therapy and actually makes chemo more
    effective, diet or nutrition science must play a role in recovery, stress or anxiety increases cortisol which in turn suppresses immune function. These things are already adopted by complementary medicine but only now being looked at by conventional. The ability to afford to do the science is a challenge for complementary but i do not see it as necessary as for conventional to do it for the following reason. Complementary are already available to public consumption and have existed often for hundred’s of years. Conventional are yet to exist and so must undergo science testing so as to become publicly available. Science testing is a prerequisite for new drugs otherwise they can not become publicly available. In the absence of the need to do science to become publicly available complementary can only be realistically compared statistically with conventional in treating a diagnosed condition. Food for thought.

  2. Belinda

    I’ve found research to support Vit C infusions to improve immune system during chemo. I’ve found other research Indicating Vit C lessens the impact of a chemo drug called Oxaliplatin so shouldn’t be combined. I’ve found other research that Vit C infusion is most helpful together with Vit K. Does anyone have any clarification for me on this topic for metastasized colon cancer? Thank you.

    • Bob

      I do not know the answer but since you are looking on-line I would look for an MD who has experience with both sides complementary and conventional and has an evidence based approach and is up to date. There are many health websites but one particular one stands out to me is a website called hope4cancer and I understand that they are very much into evidence based science and will use both complementary and conventional. They may know more to help you.

  3. LNC

    In the 1980’S there were a number of articles promoting the possible benefits of a plant based macrobiotic diet to treat cancer. The founder of macrobiotic was Michio Kushi. In Boston where we lived was the East West Centre and they had doctors who had trained with Kushi to deliver nutrition advice.
    When my father was diagnosed with advanced stage multiple myeloma the first thing he did was connect with an excellent oncologist at Mass General. Then my mother convinced him to speak with someone at the Kushi Institute. The consultant explained they could help support traditional medical treatment and it did not have to be an “either or” situation.
    My father survived 3 years longer than expected, and his oncologist felt it was in part due to his change in diet.

  4. Robert Shmerling

    Hi, Derek and Azure: Thank you for your comments. Here’s my “prominent clarification”: Length of life is not the only measure of the success of treatment; quality of life is extremely important – that’s why I made a point of commenting on quality of life in the post above: “Different results might have been observed if other outcomes of interest (such as quality of life) had been included”.

    I commented on no fewer than 6 weaknesses of this study; I have no agenda regarding this study or reason to spin the findings.

  5. jude

    Dr Ronald Raymond Rife – Sound Frequency healing ???

  6. azure

    Didn’t live as long, but how did the quality of life they enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) compare to those who chose “conventional” therapies?
    A few friends have decline chemo, et al, because of their particular cancer diagnosis, because they didn’t believe the chemo et al would work (i.e, clear the cancer) and chose to enjoy what time they had left without all the damage that chemo & radiation can cause. Usually they were in their 70’s.

    While chemo & radiation seems to have improved a bit, in terms of less damage to healthy tissue, nervous system, etc., (20 yeas ago, I met women who’d been disabled by chemo-because of the tissue & muscle damage plus chronic pain from chemo & radiation. some people have lasting damage/physical & mental impairments from treatment—and one of my friends was told that the surgeon had “gotten everything” (breast cancer) underwent all the post surgical recommended treatments, yet her cancer has returned & spread. She has long term damage from her treatment and is currently using other medication to (perhaps) lengthen her life, while dealing w/significant side effects.

    Perhaps MDs needs to consider those issues too.

    • Derek Clontz

      Azure, you took the words – and called attention to the sin of omission in this Harvard Letter reporting and the study itself, which is, frankly, unconscionable, suggesting an editorial spin in support of a conventional-therapy agenda. I’m disappointed in Harvard not so much as mentioning the flaw here. A prominent clarification if not outright correction and apology is in order. It’s a matter of trust.

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