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.

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.

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  • I disagree. I cannot do chemo due to autoimmune issues and supressed immune system and three c diff gut infections . The first went untreated because my doctor ignored my visits for chronic diarrhea and weight loss. I ordered by own comprehensive stool test and there it was over three months later, that didn’t help my breast cancer diagnosis the next month. All along, the lack of and the actual medical intervention has done nothing but made everything worse. Now, because of that I cannot eat, and am on a liquid diet and juicing. They caused me more stress and the oncologists even know chemo would be suicide for me. We are not all the same, and there are extenuating circumstances that doctors do not talk about. Why are patients given more poisons with cancer? Why after all these years of billions of dollars into cancer research are we left with the same old 4 options, most of which are barbaric and side effects kill people, as I have seen it in my own family. Why are patients not given alternatives or why do they not talk about food, toxins and stress? Mold caused my cancer and my husband’s. Why do doctor’s dismiss this, because they can’t think outside of the box. There is more than one way to skin a cat and because of doctor’s malpractice in my gut infections, I have little choice but one estrogen blocker and diet, etc.

  • I often wonder if the unusual diet I’ve followed for more than 13 years might help alleviate cancer. The diet is that for more than 13 years now, I have been living more than 90% on fluid milk products, cow milk and cow cream. So every day more than 90% of my diet is some kind of milk or milks–nonfat, lowfat, or whole–plus I sometimes buy containers of half-and-half (half milk and half cream) or pure fluid whipping cream and drink them straight.

    For me when I eat solid, mixed food my eyes hurt and vision blurs. But if I follow this diet of more than 90% milk and cream they feel and work better. Plus I think my general health is better, too.

    For the same reasons the diet helps my eyes, I think it might help cancer, although I am not claiming that it can, because I don’t know. I can try to explain why I think it works for my eyes, and why I think it might work for cancer, but it’s somewhat complicated. If you’d like me to try to explain, reply and I will.

    The 8% or so of food I eat that isn’t cream and milk is a variety, such as vegetables, fruits, cookies, candy, etc. I only eat a tiny amount of meat.

    On this diet, you do have to urinate a lot, since milk is mostly water. But I’ve never found it to be a problem.

    Another thing that might help alleviate cancer is weight loss.

  • Who are you to shame and look down on a deceased patient’s decision Doctor? There are so many other factors that were not mentioned after Ruth received her treatments in Mexico. After all she lived a year past the vitamin infusions. Maybe she returned to Chicago living a life filled with stress, or maybe she smoked cigarettes or ate poorly once back…You cannot blame the “alternative” treatment as a failed treatment because you do not know what happened in her life during that year. And how the hell do you know she would have survived the chemo/radiation even if she agreed to it? Clearly the dumbfounded chemo that was given at the ER shortened her life to a mere 3 days. You sound like a big pharma paid physician spilling propaganda with this teary feely story. How come you didn’t write about the cancer patient who did receive chemo and radiation and still died? cry over that for once! The scientific based medicine argument is bull many times the patients don’t die from the cancer but from the chemo itself. Clearly the cure is there but Big Pharma and possibly even Medical Associations do not want to publicize…after all that would be a huge loss of business for one too many professionals 😉 Respect your dead patients’ wishes and decision.

  • This is another good example on not taking the so-called ‘Alternative’ Treatment serious and makes it sound like it’s a big risk and ‘pretty stupid’ go to ‘natural’

    The Truth is High Dose Intravenous and Liposomal Vitamin C saved hundreds of thousands of lives, over and over again! It sure saved our lives personally! It has been researched and documented since the early 1900s, as well as Rick Simpson Oil, Resonance Frequencies, Mistletoe treatment, Dandilion root, Turmeric etc etc… in combination with a Ketogenic diet and/or Gerson Therapy. For what you put in your mouth (and Stress & Environment) is The Most Important Factor in being Healthy or Being Sick!

    Not to mention… This whole ‘Medical establishment’ is a BUSINESS…. ‘they’ aren’t interested in CURING people… ‘they’ want recurring constant income, which means keeping the People well enough to work, but bad enough to ‘Need’ some prescription drug…
    Curing is bad for their economy!

    That’s Why ‘Natural’, ‘holistic’…’alternative’…is being laughed at and not taken seriously. The very word ‘Alternative’…says “don’t take this seriously”…
    That’s why I prefer “Mother Earth Medicine”, which is around for billions of years and thus this is Ancient Knowledge and Wisdom… just forgotten, for the Western People where disconnected from their True Nature and where thought to ignore their true nature…

    Luckily People are Waking Up and the Light Prevails 💖🌸☀️🌸💖

    Namasté 💖👼🏻🌸🌍💖

  • People die with traditional cancer treatments. People die with alternative medicine. The bickering between the two practices needs to stop & merge to come to a common goal, as it cannot TRULY at this time be proven which treatment would give the best results for every individual. It has to be an individual decision & should be respected by all.

  • Thank you for sharing this… helps me in my decision to do both! I’m terrified of chemo treatments… but I feel like your words told me exactly the confirmation I needed… to do my part and let the doctors do theirs…. I’ll take my miracle any way I can get it. Thank you!

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