I

n 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.

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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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  • What is the survival rate for people who do radiation and chemotherapy in general for cancer? If a treatment for cancer is safe and not toxic it shouldn’t make your hair fall out and cause a myriad of other problems? You have to be crazy to endure something like that and put your body through all that abuse. Diet is one of the main contributing factors in cancer boom in the U.S. Cell phone towers and power lines don’t help much either. Eat good wholesome organic food, exercise, and quit putting crap in your body. Anything with Yeast, Processed Sugar, Cow’s Milk is horrible for your health.

  • I want to start by saying it is assumed by the way this article is written that Ruth did not have surgery. That is a huge mistake for anyone with cancer. I am aware there us a,theory that cabcer spreads cancer. We also need to look at the KIND of breast cancer she had. The oncotype has changed the lives if so many with breast cancer. Many no longer require chemo. Anyone’s thoughts on this??

  • Thanks Alan.
    I know it is a pre clinical study, no one can guarantee this would be what happen clinically. But we have to keep our eyes and minds opened. This is not saying that all chemotherapy do the same but there is a significant risk with paclitaxel. It may explain what we see clinically. We know , based on studies that 70% of cancer deaths is from patients diagnosed with early cancer, potentially curable….What are we doing ??
    I thank your article , it’s always good and sensible hear the other side.
    I am not against chemotherapy, nor I believe that traditional therapy or alternative has all answers. Studies have shown good results of combination.
    Thank you again. Regards
    Soraya

    • Your comments are not appearing under the one you are replying to. That can make it difficult to follow.

      Please provide evidence to back up the claims you made.

  • Dear Alan,

    Here there are some Articles, both on Assessment of effectiveness of chemotherapy in solid tumours as well articles on how the very drugs we use to treat cancer patients increase risk of metastases ( and mechanism by which this happens).
    I am also enclosing an article for you to ponder.
    We have to keep our minds open if we are here to help our patients.
    1.Neoadjuvant chemotherapy induces breast cancer metastasis through a TMEM-mediated mechanism

    George S. Karagiannis1,2,*, Jessica M. Pastoriza1,3, Yarong Wang1,2,4, Allison S. Harney1,2,4,5, David Entenberg1,2,4, Jeanine Pignatelli1, Ved P. Sharma1,4, Emily A. Xue1, Esther Cheng6, Timothy M. D’Alfonso6, Joan G. Jones1,2,7,8, Jesus Anampa9, Thomas E. Rohan8, Joseph A. Sparano9, John S. Condeelis1,2,4,* and Maja H. Oktay1,4,7,*

     See all authors and affiliations

    Science Translational Medicine  05 Jul 2017:
    Vol. 9, Issue 397, eaan0026
    DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aan0026

    2.Stress-inducible gene Atf3 in the noncancer host cells
    contributes to chemotherapy-exacerbated breast
    cancer metastasis
    Yi Seok Changa,b,1, Swati P. Jalgaonkara,b,1,2, Justin D. Middletona,b, and Tsonwin Haia,b,3
    a
    Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Program, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210; and b
    Department of Biological Chemistry and
    Pharmacology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210
    Edited by Mina J. Bissell, E. O. Lawrence Berkeley National

    3. To ponder : The paradox of response and survival in cancer therapeutics
    Carol Ann Huff, William Matsui, B. Douglas Smith, and Richard J. Jones
    A

    4. The contribution of cytotoxic chemotherapy to 5-year survival in adult malignancies

    G Morgan, R Ward, M Barton – Clinical Oncology, 2004 – Elsevier

    Sincerely,

  • There are many types of cancer treatment available, including: Surgery, Radiation Therapy( http://www.advancedradiationcenters.com/cancers/ ), chemotherapy, Immunotherapy, Stem Cell Transplant, Precision Medicine, etc. In which now-a-days radiation therapy Nassau County is gaining popularity for his results and effectiveness. A friend of mine was also detected with the lung cancer some months back, though it was in the early states. Thus, he was cured with ease with the Best radiation therapy New York within some time.

  • I das diagnosed with breast cancer and follow the traditional menu , as a doctor I really thought I was saving my life. I kept repeating this everyone I dealt with severe nausea, bouts of severe diarrhoea or burning neuropathy. Just to find myself years later that i progressed from a localised tumour to stage 4 cancer. I learnt then that the drug I was given increases mortality and metastases. Not only this is known but the mechanism by which this happens. This was the very drugs i thought would save my life.
    When I had metastases on bones , liver , axillary and mediastinal nodes I decided it would be stupid to try the same poison and expect a different result. I treat myself with natural infusions , Hyperthermia and Hyperbaric. I was clear in 10 weeks ( as shown on my PETS before and after) . I was not sick , in fact I was feeling better each day.
    We know based on studies than less than 2.5% are saved by chemo.
    In any area of medicine if the medication is worse than the disease it is NOT a remedy. Why is this not accepted in ontology? The number ONE cause of death in breast cancer patients is NOT cancer but heart conditions due to chemotherapy. So the drugs are killing more than the cancer. We really have to re think the way we treat cancer patients.

    • Thanks Alan . What evidence would you like to see ?
      Study on low efficacy of chemotherapy? Mechanism of action by which common chemotherapy used in breast cancer promotes metastases? Or evidence of going from stage 4 cancer to NED ( clear PET SCAN) without use of traditional therapies?
      Thank you

    • The call for evidence is an endless rabbit hole. If provided, it is immediately rejected for not being an rct. If an rct it is immediately rejected for not being an rdbpc study. If an rdbpc study it is immediately rejected for not being a large cohort rdbpc trial … Which costs up to $100M, and whose going to provide that? “The reason things don’t change is because those with the will have none of the power and those with the power have everthing to lose.” -Machiavelli

    • Robert Davies said:

      “The call for evidence is an endless rabbit hole. If provided, it is immediately rejected for not being an rct. If an rct it is immediately rejected for not being an rdbpc study. If an rdbpc study it is immediately rejected for not being a large cohort rdbpc trial … ”

      And if none is ever provided, we will never know…

      “Which costs up to $100M, and whose going to provide that?”

      Where do you get that number from, who do you think should stump up that money and what should practitioners do until such time as DBRCTs become available to back up their claims?

    • Soraya said:

      “What evidence would you like to see ?”

      Evidence for the claims you made. Other than that, I’m pretty free and easy: let’s see what you’ve got.

    • How about these 50+ peer reviewed studies on just one “alternative” protocol:
      http://ivcbook.com/50studies/

      Add to that the fact that every study that has not profoundly support the hypothesis of the protocol has not followed the protocol (see the 7 essentials page, same website).

      The question of who is to pay for it is the wrong question. The questions should be: (1) why do we not count evidence as evidence when seemingly insignificant studies are repeated dozens of times always with the same result whenever the full gold standard protocol is followed? And (2) why don’t we give relatively safe (relative to convention) treatments a higher r&d and testing priority for NIH funding when the treatments are already in wide use because of rumored efficacy? Should we not dedicate enough of the $30B the NIH gets each year to properly fund research into things that many such as yourself claim is a huge waste of money for the easily fooled, or may even be dangerous (as some claim)? Did you know that the office of complementary and alternative medicine only gets 0.4% of that budget, while 99.6% of that tax funded budget goes to r&d and testing pharmaceutical based protocols? What’s worse is that the public funds much of that, which monies are manipulated by huge pharma interests, and when the FDA approve the resulting treatment what benefit does the public get? Nothing … 100% of the IP is held by the pharma industry who then holds the public financially hostage to get the treatment which the public helped fund in the first place.

      So yes, the monies are there. They’re not going where they should. The NIH charter is simply to advance medicine. It should be to identify which treatments give the public the biggest ! Per $. Until that happens things will only get worse.

    • Robert Davis said:

      “How about these 50+ peer reviewed studies on just one “alternative” protocol:
      http://ivcbook.com/50studies/

      That’s quite a Gish Gallop. Perhaps you can say whether all of them are of the same quality and what a sys review/meta analyses of them would say?

      However, let’s just tackle a look at the very first one – no need to even look at its quality, etc, just this sentence:

      “The combination of parenteral ascorbate with the conventional chemotherapeutic agents carboplatin and paclitaxel synergistically inhibited ovarian cancer in mouse models and reduced chemotherapy-associated toxicity in patients with ovarian cancer.”

      Can you see the two major issues with that?

      “Add to that the fact that every study that has not profoundly support the hypothesis of the protocol has not followed the protocol (see the 7 essentials page, same website).”

      That’s hardly my problem, is it?

      “The question of who is to pay for it is the wrong question.”

      Nope.

      “The questions should be: (1) why do we not count evidence as evidence when seemingly insignificant studies are repeated dozens of times always with the same result whenever the full gold standard protocol is followed?”

      That really shouldn’t require an answer.

      “And (2) why don’t we give relatively safe (relative to convention) treatments a higher r&d and testing priority for NIH funding when the treatments are already in wide use because of rumored efficacy?”

      You are simply begging the question.

      “Should we not dedicate enough of the $30B the NIH gets each year to properly fund research into things that many such as yourself claim is a huge waste of money for the easily fooled, or may even be dangerous (as some claim)? Did you know that the office of complementary and alternative medicine only gets 0.4% of that budget, while 99.6% of that tax funded budget goes to r&d and testing pharmaceutical based protocols? What’s worse is that the public funds much of that, which monies are manipulated by huge pharma interests, and when the FDA approve the resulting treatment what benefit does the public get? Nothing … 100% of the IP is held by the pharma industry who then holds the public financially hostage to get the treatment which the public helped fund in the first place.”

      Well, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health section of the NIH has already spent some $2 Billion of taxpayer’s money on all sorts of research and has essentially come up with very little that works. How much more do you think they need to spend?

      “So yes, the monies are there. They’re not going where they should. The NIH charter is simply to advance medicine. It should be to identify which treatments give the public the biggest ! Per $. Until that happens things will only get worse.”

      But to get back to the questions I asked: Who do you think should stump up that money and what should practitioners do until such time as DBRCTs become available to back up their claims?

    • I find it absolutely astonishing that you think that it is not your problem that all the studies that support your point of view are not following the protocol that is recommended by the experts who have demonstrated that their trwayment has profound efficacy in treating cancer. I would like to get more into this with you but I really can’t at this time… So perhaps sometime in the future I can get back to this and answer your questions. In the meantime be assured that things are not going to remain as they have been. There’s a movement going on to change the way the things are done at the very beginning …at the NIH. There is a movement going on to put research monies toward those protocols that demonstrate the greatest value or the greatest cost-effectiveness for the public. It is only in that approach that Healthcare has any hope of meeting the needs of the general public. When this happens (and mark my words) when this happens Everything will change and the losers will be those on the payroll of the pharmaceutical industry.

    • And I would like to Second the request that we be able to edit our comments for spelling. This is especially important when many people like myself use dictation for many of our online interactions.

    • Robert

      It’s not my problem because I have nothing to prove here: you’re the one making the claims for ‘alternative treatments’ so it’s up to you to sort out the evidence. Or not.

      But isn’t the conspiracy theory that the NIH, FDA, etc, etc are all shills for and controlled by Big Pharma?

  • My aunt was diagnosed with colon cancer October ’16 and a did a year of chemo and whatever else the oncologist told her. She is now in hospice with weeks left to live. Chemo did not make her Better in the least bit. I believe there’s a better drug out there but everything in this world revolves around money. Meanwhile millions of people are suffering from this disgusting disease

    • Sorry to hear about your Aunt. Depending on the type, location and stage, survival with conventional treatments vary. Sadly, there is much more to do. However, that tells us nothing about so-called ‘alternative’ treatments, that are, of course, provided in exchange for money – even those with zero evidence that they can help or those that do only harm.

  • You are wrong. Nobody should take chemo, it destroys the immune systems and can spread certain cancers. ‘And people fail in healing themselves because they don’t know what to do. If done right there is no possible way a natural cure won’t help/ cure the cancer. Once you stop feeding the cancer with unnatural food and other toxins it cannot grow, only shrink. Natural cures are much better, 1000 times better. Please take this propaganda down.

    • Depends on the cancer. You can tell which ones it works with by what doctors prescribe for themselves when they have cancer. For leukemia they always do chemo, because it works. Not so much for most of the other cancers, and it’s prescribed far less that it used to be for the less responsive cancers. Oddly enough … a certain “alternative”, or what I prefer to call “integrative, complementary, or adjunctive” treatment, intravenous vitamin C, actually makes some chemo’s more effective, enough so that they are more justified as a treatment (so long as proper intravenous vitamin C protocols are followed). It’s a synergistic effect … but most oncologists refuse to give that even a chance. Check out the following numbers at the pubmed database. 1 + 1 = 3.
      21402145
      19254759
      10559547
      10067654
      15523102
      17283738
      17405678 PMC3260161
      17367938
      15514298
      PMC3128375
      PMC2363673
      PMC3482496

  • Sorry doc, but your facts are all wrong. I’ve had cancer three time and got rid of it the 2nd and 3rd times with Alternative Medicines. It is people like you, with your nice little degrees, telling people without nice little degrees that using toxic medicines is the way to go. The study was too small to elicit any facts worth using, for starters. You don’t know enough about Alternative Medicine, especially when you use that term. There are way too many to be lumped under one heading. You also can’t judge something off of such a limited grouping. You should know that by now. Shame on you for writing, as an authority, on something you really don’t understand. Do better research doc. Yours if flawed.

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