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.

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  • I am sure that chemo and radiation work sometimes, but all I have ever seen is the rapid decline in health and severe reduction of quality of life for chemo patients. I am tired of watching friends and family suffer through chemo only to die shortly thereafter. Death comes to us all, why prepare for it with torture? I am not suggesting that natural remedies have higher success rates, but they do emphasize health and quality of life. I know how I would prefer to live the last of my days.

  • It is hard to blame people when the chemo treatment is perceived as worse than having cancer due to the side effects. The problem is more that modern medicine is still in its infancy.

    Sometimes that sledgehammer approach is necessary, sure, but the problem is that people are far more informed than they used to be. The drugs and various ‘treatments’ are blanket applied to people based on some rough statistics and very little understanding. I can’t blame doctors for this, because you would currently need a massive research facility and a team to analyze each person. They do the best they can with various for-profit chemicals and tools that have been devised.

    That being said, you have to suck it up and endure the chemo or fool around with various unknown alternatives that aren’t studied because they don’t make money for the pharmaceutical companies. I can’t blame someone for either choice, because it is a hard one.

    The only thing really useful about this article is reminding people that you could try both types of treatments at the same time. However, from what I have observed (limited, yes) the doctors who prescribe chemo really have no time to bother. Patients are essentially put on the chemo treadmill and a few tests every few months. There are too many people with cancer to individualize treatments.

    • You are so right. T h e best option is integrative oncology which utilise the best of traditional therapies with natural alternatives , but backed up by research evidence..

  • Well then, maybe doctors shouldn’t be such jags who care more about their insurance premiums, their incomes, & the state licensing boards than they do about their patients. I have cancer myself, and I would rather die than keep going back to these idiots. I mean every word of that. #TheWomenAreWorseThanTheMenJustLikeTheLawyers

  • Well then, maybe doctors shouldn’t be such jags who care more about their insurance premiums & the state licensing boards than they do about their patients. I have cancer myself, and I would rather die than keep going back to these idiots. I mean every word of that. #TheWomenAreWorseThanTheMen.

  • “We have lost the war on cancer.”
    In 1940s one person in twenty would get cancer. In the 1970s it was one out of every sixteen people. In the 1990s it dropped to one person out of ten. Today, one person out of three gets cancer in the course of their life.
    Your doctor doesn’t know about it and if you think the modern cancer approach works…think again.
    But one man did know about this plant and many other plants he used for decades to treat and cure thousands of Americans.

  • I think you should investigate more before you published this article. Curing cancer naturally is more then what this woman did that was just the beginning of what one needs and that is to find the cause and balance out the body. You need to create an environment in the body that cancer can’t live in and then continue from there. It is a science and there is cures out there without burning and poisoning your body to kill the cancer. This woman died because the treatment was not continued not because it did not work.

    • The treatment obviously didn’t work. You don’t go from Stage 1 breast cancer with a 99% survival rate to advanced Stage 4 cancer in a year if your treatment is effective. The treatment did nothing for her cancer which continued to worsen the moment she refused treatment.

  • I beat breast cancer all natural. This article is a lie. I beat 3rd stage cancer naturally and nutritionally with exercise. Juiced organically everyday and went on a graviton treatment from the Amazon. Did a detox of all my organs and worked everyday without loosing my hair looking good everyday. And been cancer free for 12 years. I use all natural soaps shampoos and all natural lotions. And shower in a filtered water home system. Wash my clothes in natural detergents. So don’t say that you can’t beat cancer all holistic. I’m proof I baffled the doctor. He threw the record down on the table walked out. I takes no meds. All natural . And lays on the amethyst bio mat everyday. So folks don’t believe that. Doctors know you gonna die most of the time when you take chemo. It’s the money greed from it. Making the pharmaceutical company’s rich. My daughter thyroid was killing her. Went holistic allllll gone. Husband lung cancer. Went in remission. If you are disciplined with it. It can happen. I’m like bing proof

    • Hi…can you please tell me what your dgtr did for her thyroid? Also, i just discovered what feels like swollen lymph nodes in my underarms. What supplements do you take? Please help…I’m very concerned.

    • Good for you! You did everything right. The cut, poison, burn method of cancer “treatment” is a huge money making business. It is not the disease that kills…it’s those treatments.

    • My great wish is for everyone, patients, doctors, to know, every person’s body/genes and the way they react to certain medication/food is different. there is no one RIGHT way to cure this GXXDamn disease. we need better healthcare, we need to listen to our bodies, we need to examine every patient SEPARATELY and plan different treatment. That’s how we can beat cancer, by changing our mentality towards healthcare!

  • I had a left breast mastectomy 4/22/16 which involved removing 4 tumors and 9 lymph nodes. I could not have Chemo because of Neuropathy and no radiation because of my heart. She prescribed Anastrozole and Vitamin D-3. Thank God, so far there has been no return of the cancer.

  • Fifteen years ago I said no to the chemotherapy prescribed for my diagnosis of Triple Negative Breast Cancer at age 47. Instead, I chose to treat it with alternative therapies after having the tumor itself removed. I’m so grateful I did so. At the 10-year mark, my oncologist confided in me that my decision is probably what saved me.

    • Kelly,
      What alternative therapies? I too have triple negative breast cancer and just finished my 4th chemo treatment. I am suppose to have 4 more but I am seriously against chemo. I dont know what to do.

    • Hi Kelly,
      I was also diagnosed with stage ll triple negative in march this year. Had 4 rounds of AC chemo but have said no to any more conventional treatment. I would really appreciate it if you shared what your alternate therapy was.

    • i did the same ….. chose alternative solution ‘ years ago for my triple negative , im healed without chemo , surgery ,feeling great now ,build my immune system again…..for me so called modern treatments are so primitive anyways

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