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.

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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.

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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.

  • As a “terminal” cancer patient myself (metastatic neuroendocrine carcinoma, a.k.a gastrinoma, a.k.a. Zollinger Ellison Syndrome), benefiting from natural therapies when conventional medicine offered me no cure, I find your analysis to be woefully oversimplistic. My first episode of ZES was in the 1990s, I had a single, 5-cm “benign” tumor in the abdomen, which was surgically removed in 2000. But then by 2019, the disease was back, this time malignant/metastatic, with a 9-cm primary tumor in the abdomen and 35 smaller metastases in the liver, lymph nodes, and bones. That’s when I fortuitously discovered natural remedies. The regimen I adopted is extreme and strict. Over the past year, my regimen has reversed the progress of the disease, and my healing is progressing at a steady pace. This is without any medical treatment. Scans show all 36 tumors are shrinking; tumor mass has decreased 32% so far, which is blowing my oncologist’s mind, so much so she has “prescribed” that I continue “whatever it is” that I’m doing. My case proves your statement that cancer “isn’t caused by any lifestyle factor, food, or chemical exposure” is a folly, considering that’s EXACTLY what I radically changed: lifestyle, food, and chemical exposure, and as a result, reversed the disease. I’m not saying that natural remedies are a guaranteed cure. But I do know that the strictest regimens, maintained over the long term, statistically outperform conventional medicine. Your statistics don’t account for the distinctions among natural remedies. Natural remedies exist on a very wide spectrum, from utter quackery to very sophisticated. The volume of research I’ve done, and the avalanche of scientific evidence I’ve crossed paths with, scream out the fact that the subject is far too complex to be treated as superficially as you have done. “Ruth” may be a failure story, for reasons you no nothing about. But I am a success story for reasons that are directly tied to my extreme, strict regimen, and there are thousands like me, whom you are simply ignorant of. Forgive my directness, but you can argue with me all you want, but the bottom line is, I’M ALIVE and healing, and it’s not inexplicable or rare, it’s actually quite scientific, and a typical case in the natural therapy world, while I watch others die all around me as they ignore my suggestions and proceed with conventional treatment. If anyone is interested, I created a website with more details about my story and regimen at http://www.icuredcancer.com.

  • My wife had breast cancer, after surgery she had eight cycles of chemotherapy ( 4 AC plus 4 T)
    Chemotherapy never killed cancer cells, it just shrunk them. They came with vengeance in lungs, Inspite of regular screening.
    Tried Immunotherapy, it caused Catchexia.
    Switched to Herbal therapy, it is over two years and she is leading a normal healthy life at 70 yrs.
    Oncologist predicted life of a few months.

  • I do not agree with you assumptions or beliefs. Cancer is an effect of many choices we make and are exposed to as humans living on this planet. Genetics are also a facor, but are not a cause. There are plenty of woman who test postive for breast cancer genes(s) who never develop cancer and there are many of women who do not test positive for a BRCA that do develop breast cancer. I am a woman who has had breast cancer for nearly 13 years, (left breast) and done no chemo, surgery, or radation, and the cancer has spread nowhere. More people die from chemo and radiation as it is toxic, than they do breast cancer or other forms of cancer. With that, yes, some cancers spread more rapidly than other cancers and if a person decides to undergo surgery, chemo, and radiation, measures need to be taken to heals the body and detoxify it. The majority of doctors do not work with their patients to build health after treatment nor address any number of factors that created a patient experienced as part of their every day life that contributed to the appearance of cancer. Without a paradigm shift in concsiousness/awareness, cancer will persist just like other dis-ease rather than the body being “at ease” or balanced/homeostasis. People need to focus on building health rather than fighting disease. Anything one fights is perpetuated and anything we resist, persists.

    • Hi Tina what treatment did you use? I have just been diagnosed with breast cancer and exploring all options.

  • This all sounds well and good,but we forgot what causes the cancer, big pharma is why most stray away who can afford the cost . Why would it not be believable that all things are possible within the scope of the universal code.

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