If you have been searching for information about treating cancer “naturally,” I’m sure you’ve read articles, blog posts and watched videos and documentaries that make the following claims:
- Pharmaceutical companies already have the cure for cancer (or are not actually trying to cure cancer) but because of a “industry-wide” conspiracy they don’t want to let anyone know about it since that’s how they make their money.
- Conventional cancer treatments are ineffective, too toxic and/or disfiguring.
- “Alternative” therapies, diets, juices, jumping on trampolines, enemas, alkaline water, supplements, etc. cure and prevent cancer naturally and without side effects.
- Conventional cancer treatments make cancer cells more aggressive and helps them spread around the body (metastasize.)
- Any doctor that recommends alternative therapies for treating cancer is breaking the law and will be sanctioned by medical boards.
- All oncologists outright reject the possibility that anything but conventional treatments are effective.
I’ve been following many of these individuals for years, and on the surface they sound quite convincing. However, if you scratch the surface of their assertions, it is clear that they often misinterpret study findings, base their claims on lower quality studies or make bold statements that have no facts to support them (i.e. Big Pharma is murdering “alternative medicine doctors.”)
The bottom line is that patients are smart. They know what they’ve read, seen and been told when it comes to the shortcomings of conventional cancer treatments…and there are plenty. They want alternatives, and they are searching for anything that sounds less toxic and more natural. Who can blame them?! I want that too!
Conventional Oncology Is Far From Perfect:
This is why I believe that the best approach to cancer care is a combined, integrative approach, applying the most effective, least toxic and costly evidence-based treatments whenever possible. This is no longer innovative or controversial, as the most prestigious academic cancer centers have established dedicated integrative medicine or integrative oncology programs.
However, even with an integrative oncology approach to cancer care, treatments are still far from perfect. Unfortunately, the media sensationalizes the effectiveness of treatments with bold headlines that makes the public think every treatment is a blockbuster cancer cure. The reality is that no treatment is 100% effective, and oncologists spend a great deal of time educating our patients on the actual statistics. Here are some of the topics we discuss with our patients:
- No conventional cancer treatment is 100% effective. (Efficacy varies from 0-to-nearly 100% depending on the cancer type, stage, treatments delivered. Efficacy can be defined as anything from reducing symptoms and improving quality of life, to slowing or preventing cancer progression and cure.) We are aware that a small number of preclinical studies have suggested that chemotherapy and radiation therapy may make cancer cells more resistant to these treatments, but we don’t know the clinical significance of these laboratory findings. What we do know is that thousands of high quality studies show superior cancer control rates when patients are treated with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy versus not.
- Most conventional cancer treatments have side effects. (These can range from nothing to life-threatening complications depending on the treatment type, cancer, stage, patient’s overall health, age and other medical conditions.)
- It is possible that a biopsy or surgery could spread cancer cells, but the risks of this leading to worse cancer outcomes appears to be very low. There is an increase in the number of circulating cancers cells in the blood after these procedures, but it is controversial whether this finding correlates with an increased risk of eventually developing metastatic disease. What we do know is that if we don’t surgically remove a tumor or perform a biopsy more lives will be lost due to undiagnosed and/or untreated cancer. Hopefully, one day there will be a non-invasive alternatives that offer similar or better efficacy in diagnosis and treatment.
- Occasionally, cancer treatments (i.e. chemotherapy, radiation) can cause another cancer (“secondary malignancy”) to develop. These risks vary widely (0.1%-25%) depending on the treatment type, area treated, cancer type, age, genetic conditions, time from treatment and other factors. These potential risks are always weighed in relation to the potential benefits of the treatment, and they are an important topic discussed by the oncologist during the the consent process.
- Researchers sometimes falsify their data on treatments. When the truth comes to light, as it often does, this unethical behavior obviously erodes trust in the peer-review process, conventional treatments and physicians. It is impossible for the peer-review process to always catch falsified studies, but when results seem to good to be true, this raises a ‘red flag’ that prompts independent research groups and the FDA to review the data and/or conduct a new study. Once a study is proven to be falsified, journals issue a public notice of retraction.
- Conventional oncologic treatments are VERY EXPENSIVE and most oncologists are not supportive of this.
- Many evidence-based (the key phrase) non-pharmaceutical, “natural” therapies are effective in treating and preventing side effects and symptoms.
- Many evidence-based non-pharmaceutical, “natural” therapies have anticancer activity in the laboratory, but need to be studied and confirmed in human trials.
- Healthful, anti-inflammatory diets and exercise reduce cancer risks and improve cancer outcomes.
Conventional Oncology Treatments Are Improving:
You often hear claims by alternative medicine experts that all conventional cancer treatments are deadly, disfiguring, highly-toxic, make cancer cells more aggressive and don’t work. As I mentioned above, depending on the treatment, cancer, stage and other medical conditions there can be in truth to these scary proclamations.
Newer drugs, surgical procedures and radiation therapy techniques are being developed and implemented, literally, on a daily basis. In comparison to the generation of treatments before them, the vast majority are less toxic, disfiguring, invasive, and more highly targeted to reduce injury to non-cancer tissues. The book and PBS documentary, The Emperor of All Maladies, does a great job of describing many of the advancements in cancer treatment over the years.
Examples of these improvements:
- Breast tumor lumpectomies evolved from mastectomies
- Sentinel lymph node biopsies evolved from axillary lymph node dissections
- Minimally-invasive robotic surgery evolved from open surgeries
- DNA, molecular and functional drug sensitivity tumor assays to target each person’s tumor evolved from one-size-fits-all drug treatment
- Less toxic, biological and immune therapy drugs evolved from toxic chemotherapy drugs
- Targeted, short course radiation therapy techniques (i.e. radiosurgery, IMRT, brachytherapy) evolved from larger, less targeted, longer radiation techniques
These are just a small sample of the evolutionary changes that are happening in oncology to make treatments less toxic, invasive and more effective. We still have a LONG way to go, but this is the trend that has been happing for decades in our management of cancer.
More Research Is Needed On Alternative Treatments, Complementary Therapies and Anticancer Lifestyle Recommendations:
We are spending enormous amounts of money researching and developing and improving state of the art conventional cancer treatments, but I wish we would see far more focus (i.e. research, public policy, government regulation) being placed on researching cancer prevention (i.e. anticancer lifestyle changes, reducing toxic exposures, etc.) Unfortunately, these studies are among the most expensive to conduct because they take many years and require the enrollment of thousand of patients, but they can be done.
We know that numerous dietary factors are associated with cancer risks. We know that many natural botanicals have anticancer activity in preclinical studies. We also know that lower levels of chronic stress and greater levels of physical activity are associated with improved cancer risks. However, these facts are often extrapolated by alternative medicine practitioners and ‘experts’ to claim that specific diets, supplements, stress reduction and exercise can be used instead of conventional treatment to cure cancer.
It would be fantastic if these assertions were true! Unfortunately, to date, there have not been any studies that have been conducted to prove or disprove these theories.
- **An important distinction between integrative oncology and alternative cancer treatment is that integrative onocology recommends that you integrate an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise, stress reduction, toxin avoidance and use evidence-informed nutrient/botanical supplementation and other complementary therapies, when indicated, with (not instead of) conventional oncologic treatment.**
Additionally, more quality research needs to be done to test the efficacy and safety of the most promising alternative cancer treatments. Contrary to what the alternative cancer experts claim, indicating that there is limited-to-no funding available to conduct these studies, this is simply not true:
- Funding from the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (i.e. grants over $100 Million dollars per year to study complementary and alternative therapies)
- Private supplement industry (i.e. nutritional supplement companies make $32 Billion dollars per year…they can afford to throw a little towards research)
- My personal experience: I received ($50K) from private philanthropic and university grant funding to conduct a supplement study on green tea and vitamin E.
- There are numerous alternative medicine cancer centers that claim that they cure most cancer patients with their proprietary treatments, yet they do not report their actual statistics on their results. If you search for their results in a peer-reviewed journal, you won’t find any. It would cost them nothing to review their data and publish it. That should make you very suspicious on their claims.
I often get asked about my thoughts on “radical remissions,” where cancer patients reportedly used non-conventional therapies instead of conventional treatments and their cancer goes into remission. I have heard of cases like these from oncology colleagues, but I personally have never seen a proven case of radical remission amongst the patients that have come to see me for either radiation oncology or integrative oncology. Sadly, the patients who have come to see me and choose to follow an alternative-only approach all eventually died from progressive cancer, but this doesn’t mean that these instances of radical remission don’t occur. You can read about many cases here.
However, without a rigorous scientific investigation into each of these cases, we are left wondering many questions:
- Did the patients actually have cancer (was the pathology correct)?
- What were the cancer types and stages?
- Are there variants of each cancer that might respond better to specific ‘natural therapies’?
- What specific treatments did these patients have?
- Did any of these patients also receive conventional cancer treatment?
- What percentage of patients who try these exact same ‘natural therapies’ go into remission versus not?
We absolutely need researchers to conduct prospective studies to help us answer these and other important questions.
“Experts” Who Claim You Can Cure Cancer Naturally With Alternative Therapies:
Below, I highlight just a few examples of “experts” who are educating patients on “alternative” approaches to curing and preventing cancer.
These well-meaning individuals are passionate about their desire to help educate and increase awareness on cancer prevention and treatment. They have been very successful in their use of social media to build large audiences of loyal followers. However, I think it’s important that the public recognize that their message of an ‘alternative-only’ approach to prevent and cure cancer is balanced by the facts.
While integrative oncologists very much agree with their general recommendations on following a plant-predominant diet, exercise, stress reduction and toxin avoidance, these “experts” also make bold claims that alternative approaches are the only effective therapies and that patients should avoid conventional treatments. Many of them claim that what they are recommending is an “integrative oncology” approach, but there is nothing “integrative” about this.
The actress and breast cancer survivor (and now “cancer expert”), Suzanne Somers, has claimed that she beat her cancer using “natural” therapies, diet and bio-identical hormones and she recommends that other cancer patients should refuse evidence-based, conventional cancer treatments and follow her “alternative” approach. What she deemphasizes is that she also had surgery (lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy) and adjuvant radiation therapy to the breast (to decrease the chances of a cancer recurrence in the breast.)
Although she declined adjuvant chemotherapy and hormonal therapy (which reduce the risk of recurrence elsewhere in the body), her projected survival rate at 10 years is 77% (based on her clinical information entered into Adjuvant! Online, an online tool that allows doctors to estimate risks and benefits of therapies based on known clinical trial data.) This projected survival rate would be higher if she received the recommended adjuvant therapies:
- Adjuvant hormonal therapy (i.e. Tamoxifen) increases her projected survival rate by an additional 5.7%; (10 year survival: 77% + 5.7% = 82.7%)
- Adjuvant chemotherapy increases her projected survival rate by an additional 5.9%; (10 year survival: 77% + 5.9% = 82.9%)
- Both adjuvant hormonal therapy and chemotherapy increases her projected survival rate by an additional 9.9%; (10 year survival: 77% + 5.7% = 88.6%)
Over the last 5 years, new lab tests have come into the daily practice of oncology that can help define whether chemotherapy is likely to be of additional benefit or not for patients with early stage breast cancers, like hers. Here are two I often use:
So, did Suzanne Somers actually beat her cancer naturally? Absolutely NOT, she had surgery and radiation therapy, giving her a 77% chance of being alive 10 years after treatment. Studies have shown that patients who decline surgery have a 210% higher risk of dying from breast cancer within 5-years of their diagnosis.
Did Suzanne Somers reduce her risks of having an even better outcome by declining chemotherapy and hormonal therapy, we don’t know for sure, but data from numerous large international studies would suggest that she may have reduced survival by approximately 10%.
Will her anticancer dietary changes, exercise regimen and supplements make up for this potentially lower survival rate? There is no way to know without large, randomized controlled trials…which absolutely NEED to be done so that we can answer these questions for our patients.
Yes, we have lots of dietary and exercise studies that show improved cancer outcomes in patients. We also have loads of dietary supplement data that show improved side effects in patients undergoing cancer treatment and anticancer activity in cancer cell studies and in animal studies. But these data don’t answer the most important questions, which are whether and by how much these “natural” therapies and lifestyle factors might improve cancer outcomes compared with conventional therapies. This is why I recommend combining BOTH conventional treatments, evidence-informed complementary therapies and anticancer lifestyle changes whenever possible.
Chris Beat Cancer (Chris Wark):
Chris is a popular colon cancer survivor and “cancer coach.” He recommends that patients diagnosed with cancer NOT get surgery for their cancer, as he believes that surgery only spreads the cancer and is not effective, anyway. Instead, he recommends a raw vegan diet, exercise (see his trampoline jumping video, below) and prayer. I’m in full support of plant-predominant diets, exercise and spirituality, not in place of evidence-based oncological treatments, but in conjunction with them.
Although Chris has no formal medical training, he is intelligent, articulate and likely very convincing if you don’t have medical or oncology education. When you read the comments by his avid followers (he has over 53,000, on his Chris Beats Cancer, Facebook page), you will see that has led MANY of them away from evidence-based treatments by counseling them to avoid surgery, radiation and drug therapies.
Here’s his personal statement as a cancer coach:
**If you want to boost your immune system, he recommends bouncing on a trampoline**
Chris tells his followers that at the age of 26 he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was treated with surgery (right hemicolectomy and lymph node dissection.) He had 4 lymph nodes that had colon cancer metastases, and was stage as a IIIB colon cancer (T3N2aM0). He was recommended to receive adjuvant chemotherapy (to reduce the risk of recurrence after surgery), but he chose to forgo the chemotherapy and instead ate a raw vegan diet, exercised, took supplements and prayed. No radiation therapy was recommended for his stage of colon cancer (although he insinuates that he declined radiation therapy.)
After entering his information into Adjuvant! Online, his predicted probability of surviving 5 years after surgery would be 64% (without chemotherapy) and 80% (with FOLFOX chemotherapy.) After entering this same information into the MSKCC colon cancer risk calculator, his probability of surviving 5 years after surgery and chemotherapy would be 89%.
So, did Chris ‘beat’ cancer because of his regimen of raw plants, exercise, supplements and prayer? There is no way to know, but based on predictions from his age, sex and pathology information at the time of his surgery, he had a 64% chance of surviving 5 years with just surgery alone. Had he received chemotherapy, his probability of surviving would have been 16-25% greater. Those are the risks he took, and each of our patients should know those risks just like he did.
As an integrative oncologist, I recommend that patients chose the most effective, evidence-based treatments, regardless of whether they are conventional or otherwise. Chris chose to do both, and this needs to be emphasized. Unfortunately, he is counseling patients to forgo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy (although this is not indicated, anyway, with his cancer stage), and instead simply recommends that they observe the cancer with radiology studies and ‘blood work’ while they implement a raw vegan diet, exercise, take supplements and pray.
Chris is also a big supporter of the Gerson dietary regimen, which was shown in a randomized controlled trial to not only be less effective than chemotherapy, but patients who received this diet also had a significantly worse quality of life. You can read more about the debunked Gerson therapy here, and watch a short video about it here.
Chris acknowledges (**see the screenshot, below**) that he received a “donation” of support from Dr. Patrick Vickers, a Chiropractor who has been treating cancer patients for years, at a busy alternative medicine clinic in Mexico. Their website claims they can cure most cancer patients with a vegan diet, fresh juices and supplements.
The Truth About Cancer and The Quest For Cures:
Many of my patients have watched these “alternative cancer treatment” documentaries which claim that conventional oncology is both not effective and dangerous. As you might expect, the interviewed “experts” boldly state that the best approach to treating all cancers is through alternative therapies, various diets, alkaline water, detoxification, supplements, etc.
I have had a number of patients who have asked me about these documentaries, and I have therefore had a chance to educate them on the quality of the data supporting their recommendations.
The people ‘interviewed’ in these documentaries all state the same claims as I’ve mentioned above: ‘natural therapies cure and prevent cancer,’ conventional therapies don’t work and are too toxic,’ ‘Big Pharma and doctors are conspiring to hold back cancer cures,’ etc.
Here are some screenshots I took of a mass email I received from the publishers of this documentary:
On Facebook, I found this photo (see below) of Chris Wark (Chris Beats Cancer) and Ty Bollinger (the producer of The Truth About Cancer.) It looks like they are good buddies, which explains why Chris is constantly promoting Ty Bollinger’s series in his posts…I wonder how much is he getting paid to promote this misguided, alternative-only series.
Read an excellent review about The Truth About Cancer and The Quest For Cures documentaries here:
Here’s another review:
- “The Truth About Cancer” Series is Untruthful About Cancer (Sciencebasedmedicine.org)
The Bottom Line:
Cancer care providers and patients know that conventional cancer treatments are far from perfect. This is not some secret or conspiracy that Big Pharma and doctors are keeping from the public.
- Everyone knows and acknowledges that even the best, state of the art conventional cancer treatments are not 100% effective, and they often have a host of side effects and risks.
- We all know that oncology treatment is far too expensive, and major legislative reforms must be enacted to reverse the out of control costs.
For these and many other reasons, it is completely understandable that our patients are seeking out information on therapies and approaches that are more natural, less toxic and cheaper. They desperately want to believe what they see and read from documentaries, interviews, books, magazines and websites, hopeful stories of ‘alternative’ cancer cures and therapies. Who can blame them?! I too have personally searched for these exact same things, with the hope that I can find unconventional treatments that might help my own family members, friends and patients with various cancers.
My Integrative Oncology Approach To Cancer Prevention and Treatment:
As an integrative oncologist, I preferentially recommend to patients the most effective, least toxic and costly, evidence-based therapies, regardless of whether they are conventional or not. I recognize that many non-pharmaceutical treatments work as well as pharmaceutical therapies in the management of symptoms, but with fewer side effects and lower cost. Although not always supported by strongest data, I recommend taking a precautionary, proactive approach when it comes to making anticancer lifestyle changes (i.e. anti-inflammatory diet, exercise, weight loss if overweight, stress reduction, toxin avoidance, sleep, etc.) to reduce cancer risks and hopefully improve outcomes.
I recommend that whenever you hear of any treatment that sounds too good to be true, delve into the science and the quality of the supporting studies to weigh whether there’s something to it or not. If the evidence is not strong enough (i.e. no randomized clinical trials, pragmatic trials, etc.), don’t immediately discount it as bogus, but chalk it up as a possibly effective therapy as long as there are published, peer-reviewed preclinical (i.e. animal studies, cell studies, etc.) or clinical (i.e. human studies) data out there on it. But, stay skeptical, as it is well known that only 8% of therapies that are effective in preclinical studies end up being effective in humans.
This is how I rank claims of treatment effectiveness:
- First place: randomized controlled trial human studies or evidence-based, personalized lab assay directed treatment (i.e. EVA-PCD functional drug sensitivity testing, etc.)
- Second place: pragmatic trial human studies
- Third place: large epidemiological and case controlled human studies (1000’s of people)
- Fourth place: retrospective studies with less than 100 patients
- Fifth place: animal studies
- Sixth place: cell studies
- Seventh place: claims from patients and providers that are not supported by published data in a quality peer-reviewed journal
If you have any questions about alternative approaches to cancer prevention and treatment that sound too good to be true (i.e. “cancer cures without side effects,” “do XYZ and you will never get cancer,” etc.), ask your oncologist for their take on it. Increasingly, I have found that more and more conventional oncologists are becoming open-minded to non-pharmacological treatments and anticancer lifestyle changes. If you want to discuss these treatments with an integrative oncologist, consider making an appointment.
Chris Wark (Chris Beats Cancer)
Dr Stanislaw Burzynski
- The Houston Cancer Quack
- Respectful Insolence
- Dr Andrew Weil
In Contrast With Alternative Cancer Treatments, Read More About Integrative Oncology
- IOE (IntegrativeOncology-Essentials)
- SIO (Society For Integrative Oncology)
- MSKCC (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center)
- MDACC (MD Anderson Cancer Center)
- UCSF (University of California San Francisco)
- UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center)
- DFCI (Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School)