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.

advertisement

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.

Newsletters

Sign up for our Cancer Briefing newsletter

Please enter a valid email address.

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.

  • This is the typical type of medical /business article that i usually skip over. However now having Dr’s telling me as usual i need chemo even though the tumor I had that was supposed to kill me 4 years ago is gone due to all homeopathic remedies i figured i would give it a read. I feel bad for Ruth but Dr you guys are killing more people then you are healing right? I mean no one talks about nutrition in the oncologist office, they scoff when you mention juicing but yet wholeheartedly back a diet packed with gmo’s, fats, SUGARS etc. Is there any harm in learning a little outside the box stuff to help with your killer drugs, maybe beta glucan? Can you really say vitamin C is doing harm with a straight face? The whole industry needs a shake and wake, also i find this article to be FAKE NEWS

  • No doctor tell us that we could die caused by complications after chemo therapy and radiation therapy,and if it happens they say “body was weak” and that’s all

  • May God forgive you Dr Suneel – I disagree with what said regarding natural and traditional treatment of Cancer. I am going to calibrate 10 years middle of March/2019 after I won the battle against prostate cancer using only natural treatment I feel energetic without any side effect – you Know very well that surgery, as well as biopsy, can spread cancer cell, Chemo weaken the immune system and the functions of the internal organs, Radiation burn and then cancer remain because the body still full of toxins. the reasons for healthy cells to turn to cancer cells must be eliminated, a new healthy lifestyle must continue> But the 3 evils destroy patients and cause the strong return of cancer .

  • I guess the other does not know about Otto warburg who won the nobel prize in aboit 1931 explaining the cause of cancer and till today nobody has disprove it. Cancer feeds on sugar and carbs and grows in acidic enviroment. Alkalize the body and you get rid of it.

  • Not a follow up to comments but to author . . . U came to your conclusion without not knowing the full information. . . Your words , which then leaves your article, basically useless. . . I personally have had cancer ruin my family leaving me a broken , traumatized soul , beyond repair , that said I will continue to help and fight, to help friends and family, which as I write this comment I’m currently. . . Again to the author u either are ‘ in on it’ , or blind to the facts , either way please resign from your job , cease writing useless articles , take up organic gardening, permaculture principles and educate yourself. . . Change your ways . . . Holistic approach only way for cancer . . . To anyone who chooses needs expert advice, can’t just drink a few smoothies and expect results . . . Again your article is questionable so who knows if your scenario of poor lady who opted not to have help . . . Murder in my opinion , first hand experience, of a curable cancer! . . Anger not helpful , for anyone , but your words did not help . . . I could go on . . . But to all . . . Wake up

  • From reading this article it feels as though there is very little understanding of how people go about treating themselves naturally. As a result, it seems very one sided and not very in-depth, with research and figures supporting the writers opinion and experience rather than showing an understanding of both sides. This is really important when it comes to people’s health and the reason I feel the need to comment on this is because there is a thick layer of strongly opinionated articles and reports that are available online without proper demonstration of relevant in-depth research. I suppose if the purpose of this article is to persuade people towards allopathic treatment, then I guess the one sided approach makes sense… That said, if the purpose of this report is to help people, it isn’t very helpful when the person reading the article is only able to learn about someone’s one sided opinion. Thanks

  • conventional medicine has a pathetic success rate with cancer. 2% according to statistics. i am amazd at people, especially doctors who comment on therapies they know nothing about. “cut, burn, poison.” is your only answer. and all you have.

    • David – Did you evn read this article? It plainly states that natural remedies to cure cancer DO NOT work. The success rate depends alot on what type of cancer, how far along it is, etc. Conventional medicine DOES work to cure cancer and gives a patient a much better chance at remission.

    • Sadly, this is the truth. I have friends (my boyfriend included) who treated themselves naturally- different cancers, different stages of cancer and all of them didn’t spend a single day in hospital. The only suffering they did experience was the initial biopsy (highly recommend NOT doing it – highly intrusive, with a high risk of causing the cancer to spread and much less reliability results wise to other tests that are available) were effects involved in detoxing the tumour of them. And now they are cancer free, full of life, more educated and happy than ever. It is so empowering and incredible to see. It took my boyfriend 9 months in total – much shorter than the time it took our friend who has exactly the same type of cancer, went the conventional root, suffered months in hospital, had her vocal cords paralysed, can no longer breathe properly, is on medication for the rest of her life and wasn’t even allowed to see her pregnant sister or elderly grandparents for months after due being radioactive (she could kill the unborn child). On the conventional medicine side (everything this article is recommending!) – I have lost both of my grandparents, 4 parents of friends and a neighbour. Treating cancer with cancer (chemotherapy and radiation) doesn’t work (not for the long term, 5-7+ years). It’s doesn’t cure it. It gets rid of the symptoms which are essentially the body communicating to you that there is a problem and it needs your help. Our bodies are healing mechanisms. They heal us all day, every day. It is a matter of listening knowing how to assist it.

Sign up for our Daily Recap newsletter

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

Privacy Policy