In the early years of my career as an oncologist, I’m learning that you really remember the patients you can’t save. Those with essentially curable cancers who refused the right treatment stand out the most.

One of those is a patient I’ll call Ruth. She was only 30 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, as I learned later from her medical history. It was localized to her left breast and contained within the relatively small tumor; there were no signs it had spread to other parts of her body. With the right treatment, Ruth had about a 75 percent chance of staying free of breast cancer for the rest of her life.

The “right treatment,” though, wasn’t going to be easy. Ruth would need to have surgery to remove the tumor followed by several months of chemotherapy, which would cause fatigue, nausea, and hair loss. Then it would be on to several weeks of radiation, which can cause fatigue, skin irritation, and scarring of the lungs. The path would be arduous, but it offered Ruth the best chance for a cure.


Instead, she chose an alternative medicine approach with a doctor in Mexico. I never learned exactly what it entailed, but it generally consisted of getting intravenous infusions of vitamins, including vitamin C, once a week. Drinking juices and other beverages with berry and plant extracts — all with supposed anti-cancer and healing properties — was also part of the treatment. Everything was “natural” and wholesome. After several months, she returned home to Chicago. Her breast felt fine and she thought the treatment had been successful.

A year later, Ruth found herself tiring easily. She had little appetite and was rapidly losing weight. She was also having trouble thinking and remembering things. She came to the emergency room when she lost strength and balance in her legs to the point that she couldn’t walk. An MRI showed that her breast cancer had spread to the lining of the brain and entire spinal cord. A spinal tap showed that the fluid that cushioned Ruth’s brain and spinal cord was filled with breast cancer cells.

I met Ruth when she was first admitted to the hospital. By then, she couldn’t articulate where in Mexico she had received her treatment, or what exactly it was, because her memory was fading and she was increasingly confused. She had no family and refused to call her friends for support.

I explained that her breast cancer had spread widely and that she had a few weeks or months to live. We could give her a high dose of a chemotherapy drug called methotrexate to try to improve her balance, leg strength, and mental clarity, but beyond keeping her comfortable there was little else we could do. This time, Ruth agreed to chemotherapy, though it was far too late. Despite the treatment, she became more confused and her weakness worsened. She lost the ability to speak or swallow any food or water. Four days later, Ruth slipped into a coma and died alone in a hospital room. She was only 31.

It is human nature to believe that anything that is “all natural” is intrinsically good. That line of thought can lead people astray. The truth is, cancer is all natural. While some are caused by smoking or chemical exposures, most of them are sporadic, meaning they aren’t caused by any lifestyle factor, food, or chemical exposure. Cholesterol, a major cause of heart attacks and strokes, is natural and even necessary — the body requires it to build cell membranes and the protective covering around nerves. HIV, Ebola, and Zika are all caused by naturally occurring viruses.

Ruth, with her belief in so-called natural healing, thought nothing of stepping onto an airplane weighing thousands of pounds and flying at 30,000 feet from Chicago to Mexico. What could be more unnatural?

Absolute and exclusive belief in natural alternative medicine to cure cancer has devastating consequences. A study out this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute looked at 281 patients with non-metastatic breast, lung, colorectal, and prostate cancers who chose to be treated exclusively with an alternative approach, and compared their survival with patients who received conventional cancer treatment. Overall, those in the alternative medicine group were 2.5 times more likely to die. Those with lung cancer were nearly 2.2 times more likely to die, and those with colorectal cancer were 4.5 times more likely. Women with breast cancer fared the worst — with a 5.7 times higher death rate among those who chose only alternative therapies. Several other studies have shown similar outcomes, especially for breast cancer.

People with cancer are easy targets for naturopathic scams because they can be desperate for hope and extensively research their treatment options. “Natural” treatments with few side effects appear irresistible when compared to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. But it is almost impossible for most people to know beforehand that these natural remedies won’t do anything for their cancer. If the cancer returns, they are more likely to blame the cancer rather than the ineffective natural remedies they received.

There’s no doubt that alternative medicine can play important roles in cancer care. Techniques such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and others can greatly improve cancer-related fatigue, pain, mental health, and quality of life when they are added to standard cancer therapy.

Some doctors reject alternative medicine completely, alienating patients like Ruth in the process. The unfortunate thing is that she didn’t have to choose between alternative and traditional medicine. They can be complementary approaches, not exclusive ones. She could have taken vitamin C tablets, drank berry extract beverages, and participated in yoga or meditation classes during chemotherapy or radiation therapy regimens.

Making a decision about treating cancer shouldn’t be based solely on a natural versus unnatural algorithm. We should focus on making choices that realistically have the best chance to help us. Sometimes, the “unnatural” option is the best one.

Suneel D. Kamath, M.D., is a hematology/oncology fellow at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • Thats a bunch of hogwash. Chemo and radiation kill! Id rather put my chances on natural treatments. Which death would be worse? Doesnt take a brain surgeon to figure that out. Chemo and radiation killed my son very fast. They told him they were gonna fix him. Right!

  • I have to agree with you. A natural route is not always the best way to go. I think the survival rate would be higher for someone with breast cancer if proper treatment is given at first sign of breast cancer. Some people just like to take things into their on hands and without considering the right treatment that could actually save their life. Chemo might or might not cure cancer but I believe that it could extend your life while fighting your battle.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong but you said without treatment ( after it was terminal) she had a few weeks maybe months to live. You told her chaemo wouldn’t save her but would help her. Not only did it increase her suffering it killed her faster. And yet you write this article to convince us chaemo is better. It wasn’t and it might not have been first time around either . She may have been the 25% (1 in 4) for whom it kills.

  • Joe.
    I was diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer, last November 2018. I was told I needed 6 weeks of radio, chemo, and brachytherapy. I rejected them, and did my own treatments, believing that I’d cure myself this way. My cancer has spread to my neck, and is now stage 4B. The doctors have said they cannot cure me anymore. It is too late, but I am taking chemo now, and it is working. I had been so close to death. I could feel myself fading away, like I was only half there, but now I am definitely better. I will take what the hospital have to offer me, plus anything natural I can manage to do. I had lost over 3 stone, before. I just looked and felt so ill, I was at death’s door, so I couldn’t afford to take any more risks. I’ve not got a lot of side affects. Just a bit of sickness over a few days, about a day of upset stomach, and hair loss. My faith in God/Jesus is most important.

  • Very good article. The people who are replying and who continue to advocate “natural” medicine are delusion or have something to sell.

  • I have a very close friend, (Phil Hammond) who is fighting stage four cancer. He’s been through radiation, and chemo, and although it did not take out his hair, it changed the pigmentation in his skin. His Doctor then, gave him only two years if less. I assume Phil opt not to have surgery but to try the chemo and radiation which did not make him sick either. Now, the chemo also caused him to have a stroke recently and even with therapy, he sounded like his old self 3 weeks again. Now I am learning, he’s in hospice care. I was in total shock because that wasn’t him three weeks ago. I asked his sister if there are any changes, to let me know asap and so far I have not heard anything though I’m wondering did something happen, and they have not gotten around to letting everyone know, or is he actually still hanging on? He relocated with his sister in Florida to help look after him and she’s giving him three different types of herbs to help fight Cancer since they stopped the chemo and radiation and for what reason I don’t know since by time I waned to ask why they stopped both treatments his phone cut off on me while talking to his sister. My question is, can he still be saved and what to eat and take besides baking soda and different herbs I have read up on that is good for this big C, and rest and water. He wants so bad to live, how can I help him all the way in Florida? once I can get a hold of him since the phone has been on voice mail for three weeks :(. I grew up with this good friend from mid teens and we are both in our 60’s now. Losing him is like losing my right leg so I wand to do and say and advise him to eat and do certain things that will help him which he already knows and has started doing for months so he’s been on the right path. Last I heard he was laying there sleeping peacefully, and had not eaten in two days. Any advice? He still thinks and says, he is going to beat this Cancer!

  • When my mum was dying of colon cancer which lead to a number of sepsis attacks we turned to alternative treatments, after almost a year of IV antibiotics and operations on the infected area the doctors removed her pic line and sent her home to die because they said the bacteria had mutated to the worst form of E Coli and there was nothing else they could do.

    My mother would certainly have died within 24-48 hours. With alternative medicine I managed to bring her temperature down and kill the infection once and for all over the space of a few weeks. What I used was also popular as a cancer treatment and although I was focussed on the infection, all the lumps and bumps of cancer in her groin and abdomen dramatically began to dissapear and I topically applied the treatment to the cancer growing externally, which would turn black and within 2 days fall away, leaving no signs of bleeding.

    We also cured the C Diff she caught during a stay in the hospital using alternative medicines after the hospitals antibiotics failed her once again. No one can tell me alternative medicine has no power.

    • Lynda, i’m so happy to learn that your mother is doing so well. Keep her on a regimen, so this disease won’t come back. Eat foods high in potassium. You will see my story, and I’m hoping for a miracle as this point for my good childhood friend fighting stage 4 Cancer. He had a lump in his groin area that he ignored for over a year and once it got to the point of where he could not stand the pain of it anymore then he went to have it checked out and to his shocking discovery, it was a stage four cancer. Any advice you can give me to help him once and if I hear from him staying with is sister in Florida who is looking after him?

  • The natural way of treating is the best way. GOD gave us everything we needed in the Garden of Eden. Your healing is from what comes from the ground and NOT these toxins you put into your body. It is a trick of this system in which we live. The BIBLE says the love of money is the root of all evil. Big pharma is making a killing while killing people. Go the natural way and you will surely live.

    • Joe, you hit the nail right on the head. It is so crucial, we take care of our bodies and honestly, I truly believe there is a cure for the big C but the Pharma companies are not allowing it to get out which is against the law. Even to animals are getting Cancer. What in the hell is causing this big C to pop up in animals as well as people, it’s killing people left and right 🙁 It’s so important to also keep our colon clean and immune system free as well. I pulled this up today: Does baking soda shrink tumors?

      The researchers theorize that drinking baking soda reduces the cells’ acidity, making them an easier target for chemotherapy by forcing them to burst into action. This means chemotherapy and imunotherapy may be able to target a larger portion of the tumor, including dormant cells that cause the cancer to return. But I so agree with what you mentioned, go God’s way and take care of his temple, and water is life, drink plenty of spring water. Tell me your thoughts.

    • There has got to be a better way than chemotherapy, it doesn’t make sense, there just has to be a better. Surely to God?!!

  • My concern is why does it cost so much to treat knowing this is a worldwide epidemic which also involves some poor nations

    • very good question Bankole, very good question, i would like to know myself??? this big C is taking lives in abundance and it’s like a plague around the world now. Animals are getting it too, and I truly believe they know how to treat it and there is a cure, but they would rather make money off of people and experiment on people like mice instead of curing them with the cure they are hiding from the world, sick minded people in the FDA we thought we could trust

  • One sided poorly written article. The story of Ruth is extreme, most people turn to natural therapies to combat the brutal side effects of conventional cancer treatments. 1 in 14 women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer develop cancer in their healthy breast due to the treatment. 1 in 500 women taking tamoxifen also for breast cancer will develop endometrial cancer due to the drug. Natural therapies support cancer patients immune system and help them cope with the toxic poisons of cancer treatments.

    • And yet despite the side effects they are best treatments, supported by evidence and clinical trials that show improvements to measures like mortality and remission. Natural remedies are unregulated and pushed with scant or no evidence whatsoever. If there was a natural remedy that worked as well, it would be the conventional treatment. Patient’s denial of their situation and distrust of medical science lead some to make extremely foolish choices.

A roundup of STAT’s top stories of the day in science and medicine

Privacy Policy