Cancer patients often inquire about various forms of treatment that are performed outside the realm of hospitals and the clinical mainstream. With more than half a million cancer deaths per year in the U.S., increasing numbers of people—both with and without healthcare coverage—are looking into all types of treatment for this incurable disease, including methods that might seem too good to be true.
All of which begs the question: are non-medical treatments effective at stemming the growth and lethal effects of cancer? This sample biological essay from Ultius considers many non-medical treatments and evaluates their success rate for cancer sufferers.
The appeal of alternative forms of cancer treatment
Alternative cancer treatments in the form of diets, exercise, meditation, and supposed remedies have been promoted by questionable sources for many decades. Some of these treatments have come and gone, while others have continued to attract new patients, but none have been approved by the federal regulatory agencies because no such method has been scientifically proven to be effective at reducing, reversing, or killing cancer.
The method of acupuncture, for instance, has long been the subject of debate as to whether it can effectively minimize the effects of cancer. Other forms of alternative treatment, such as herbal remedies and medicinal marijuana use, have been rumored to suppress cancer symptoms, though such claims have never been substantiated from reputable sources.
Three types of alternative treatment
There are distinctions to be made between alternative, complementary, and experimental forms of treatment.
- Alternative treatment a substitute for proven, conventional forms of treatment
- Complementary treatment is simply used as adjunctive therapies. An example of a complementary treatment would be acupuncture, which—while ineffective at killing cancer—is sometimes taken as a nausea-reducer by patients who are undergoing chemotherapy
- Experimental treatment would account for any purported cancer treatment that is currently under efficacy review by the medical boards
A lot of the appeal to alternative cancer treatments has to do with the continued uncertainty of mainstream treatments. Even though the five-year mortality rate of new cancer patients has dropped from 90% to 34% since the development of modern treatment during World War II (SEER), there are still side effects—blood clots; infection—that occur in many cases, some of which are fatal. Consequently, there are many people drawn to the notion of alternative or Eastern methods of treatment that—though clinically unverified in terms of efficacy—are not known to have any serious side effects.
Acupuncture as an alternative
Acupuncture is one of the major components of Chinese medicine. The practice involves needles that are stuck into a patient’s body at precise locations, which practitioners refer to as acupuncture points. Other elements used during a session may include pressure, heat, and laser light, which are applied to the same select points on the body by certain practitioners.
Acupuncture is most often administered for the relief of pain, though various other uses are also undertaken, including cancer treatment. Even though acupuncture dates back to during the Han dynasty of China and is practiced—albeit differently—in various parts of the world, only in recent decades has it gained acceptance in the U.S., where ancient Chinese medicine is commonly dismissed as pseudoscience.
Precautions for acupuncture
When performed by a licensed practitioner, acupuncture is generally a safe form of treatment, even if it’s merely useful as an adjunctive therapy. Infections are rare, though the treatment should only be performed with sterile needles. Anyone diagnosed with a low blood count or who is currently taking blood-thinning medication should not undergo acupuncture without first discussing the treatment with a doctor.
Validity of acupunture results
Studies have been contradictory as to whether acupuncture provides any benefits regarding pain or stress relief for cancer patients. Despite a systematic review in 2014 that suggested the treatment could aid in the palliative care of patients, a more recent Cochrane review found such evidence to be insufficient (Paley et al.) Research into acupuncture’s effects on some of the more benign cancer symptoms—hiccups, fatigue—have ranged from inconclusive to discouraging. However, a 2013 review found that acupuncture could work as an accessory to other treatments for chemo-induced queasiness and vomiting (Garcia et al.)
A similar treatment known as acupressure, which is based on the same traditional Chinese medicinal principles as acupuncture, is also used as an accessory therapy to certain cancer symptoms. The thing that distinguishes acupressure from acupuncture is that, whereas the latter uses pins, the former applies pressure to select points of the body. Studies into the effects of acupressure on various symptoms have been dubious at best, and its acceptance within the U.S. medical community has been minimal due to the fact that no anatomical evidence has been found to confirm the existence of meridians or acupuncture points.
Alternative health systems rumored to treat cancer
The following list of alternative health systems are often used to aid in the treatment and recovery of cancer patients. While some of these methods offer benefits in terms of energy, stress relief, and mental well-being, none have been recognized by the American Cancer Society as having any remedial effects against the development or growth of cancer.
A therapeutic tradition dating back to the ancient cultures of Greece, India, Egypt, China, and Rome. The theory behind aromatherapy is that essential oils are vital to a person’s well-being, and therefore beneficial to human health. While aromatherapy has been accepted as a method for enhancing mood and relieving stress, there is no evidence to suggest that it has any remedial benefits, despite often being promoted as such.
Another ancient practice, herbalism consists of plant-based medicines that are used for intended remedial purposes in lieu of chemical-based pharmaceutical drugs, a growing concern of which is opioid addiction. As part of the philosophy, remedies are drawn from select, unfiltered plant substances so as not to dilute the natural chemistry of a given source.
Popular in Sweden, the holistic method consists of a whole-person approach, in which a patient’s physical, physiological, and psychological needs are equally taken into account. The field of holistic medicine is loosely defined, but a typical regime combines alternative medicine with colon cleansing and metabolic therapy. While the method is often pursued by patients looking for a spiritual approach to healing, any derived benefits of holistic medicine are believed to be limited to the placebo effect.
An alternative-medicine system that was first introduced in 1796 by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, who believed that the agents that cause diseases in healthy people could actually kill diseases in sick people. While no scientific studies have come out in favor of homeopathy, it’s often promoted as a legitimate form of cancer treatment; all of which renders the system a pseudoscience.
A system that employs various natural modalities and largely stress relieving techniques, including herbalism, homeopathy, meditation, diet, and spiritualism. The system developed as an outgrowth of the Natural Cure movement of the late 19th century, when it was first promoted by physician Benedict Lust as a method of natural healing. Though promoted as a cancer treatment during the early 1900s, naturopathy—like most natural and spiritual healing methods—went into decline with the advent of penicillin. Today, naturopathy is largely dismissed as pseudoscience and quackery.
Dietary methods rumored to fight cancer
Over the past century, a number of diets have been promoted along with claims that a specific regimen of food intake could prevent or reverse cancer. Examples of such dietary programs, none of which have been endorsed by any medical boards, include the following:
A limiting diet based on the premise that the levels of acidity and pH in the body’s system are affected by certain foods. By restricting intake to non-acid foods, proponents have claimed that the Alkaline diet can lower the possibility of cancer and heart disease: a claim that has been roundly dismissed by the Canadian Cancer Society (“An alkaline diet.”)
Introduced in the 1950s by German biochemist Johanna Budwig, the diet emphasizes high intakes of flaxseed oil along with fiber, organic fruits and vegetables; as well as an avoidance of meat, sugar, butter, and margarine. Based on her studies of fatty acids, Budwig believed that the diet could kill cancer cells by changing the fat types within a person’s food intake. This theory has been dismissed by Cancer Research UK, which has stated that “there is no reliable evidence to show that the Budwig diet” can help cancer patients (“What is the Budwig diet?”)
Popular among vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians, the diet emphasizes grains and vegetables, but discourages genetically modified foods, diary and most animal products. Though the macrobiotic diet is often rumored to be an effective shield against cancer, there is no scientific evidence to back these claims.
Energy-based “cancer cures”
Debunked medical theories are nothing new in modern society. The latest being that vaccination leads to autism. A number of energy-based methods and products have come and gone over the past century that have been touted, at one time or another, to cure cancer. The following are just two of the most notorious examples:
Alternately known as the Mattei cancer cure, this once-popular treatment—pioneered by 19th century Italian scientist Count Cesare Mattei—was based on the theory that certain colors of radiation could minimize or kill cancer. Long dismissed within the science community, electrohomeopathy was debunked as far back as 1905 by noted American physician E. J. Kempf, who referred to the treatment as “utter idiocy,” (Kempf).
Electro-physiological feedback xrroid
A discredited electronic device that was touted as an energy medicine, which could supposedly emit signals through the body to treat cancer and other diseases. A brief buzz surrounding the $20,000 device during the late noughties sparked a debunking by physicist Stephen Barrett, who wrote that the Quantum Xrroid—as it was alternately called—was
“claimed to balance ‘bio-energetic’ forces that the scientific community does not recognize as real,” but that it “mainly reflects skin […] which is not related to the body’s health,” (Barrett).
The prognosis on alternative cancer treatment
Early detection can lead to the successful removal of certain cancers, but there is currently no known diet, herb, or electronic device that will make cancer magically disappear from the body. At best, alternative medicines and methods like acupuncture and aromatherapy can serve as complementary methods to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other treatments that are accepted by the medical community under the management of cancer.
“An Alkaline Diet and Cancer.” Cancer.ca. Canadian Cancer Society. n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Barrett, Stephen. “Some Notes on the Quantum Xrroid (QXCI) and William C. Nelson.” Quackwatch. Stephen Barrett, M.D. 12 July. 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Garcia, M. Kay, Jennifer McQuade, Robin Haddad, Sonya Patel, Richard Lee, Peiying Yang, J. Lynn Palmer, and Lorenzo Cohen. “Systematic Review of Acupuncture in Cancer Care: A Synthesis of the Evidence.” Journal of Clinical Oncology. US National Library of Medicine. 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Kempf, E. J. “European Medicine: A Résumé of Medical Progress During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” Medical Library and Historical Journal 1903–1907. National Center for Biotechnology Information. n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Paley, Carole A., Mark I. Johnson, Osama A. Tashani, and Anne-Marie Bagnall. “Acupuncture for Cancer Pain in Adults.” Cochrane Library. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 15 October 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
“SEER Stat Fact Sheets: All Cancer Sites.” National Cancer Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. n.d . Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
“What is the Budwig diet?” CancerResearchUK.org. Cancer Research UK. n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.