Unproven Treatments for Cancer
If a cure may not be possible with standard treatment, some people
with cancer and their families begin to consider the use of
alternative, non-traditional, unproven, or unorthodox forms of
treatment. Well-meaning friends and relatives may suggest that you
have nothing to lose by seeking such help. You may be quite eager to
pursue this, since the idea that the disease is no longer curable may
create a sense of helplessness, depression, and even panic. While
these feelings are understandable, the most important thing to
remember when considering unproven treatments is that accepted medical
treatment for your cancer is the best scientifically tested therapy
available. If you do try any unproven treatments, they should not
interfere with your regular medical treatment. It is sad when a person
whose cancer could have been successfully managed by standard therapy
drops this therapy for an unproven method, since the odds for success
are small, and unproven treatments are usually expensive.
The best way to determine whether a method of treatment is proven or
unproven is to ask your family doctor or cancer specialist. Doctors
rely on scientific proof before they recommend treatment. Unproven
methods lack such proof. Cults or organizations often associated with
unproven treatments hold beliefs that may not relate to the facts.
They have an "I don't need to prove it" attitude and use the media to
promote their efforts, accusing organized medicine of a conspiracy to
prevent their treatment from taking its "true place" in cancer
therapy. They use terms such as "free choice," "alternative method,"
"holistic," and "naturalistic."
If you are unsure about a particular therapy, ask yourself the
- What is the professional training of the person who recommends the
therapy? Many practitioners of unproven methods hold nonmedical
degrees such as Doctor of Naturopathy or Doctor of Nutritional
- Is the doctor associated with an accredited hospital? Beware of cancer
treatment clinics that are not connected to an approved hospital,
especially those outside the United States.
- Is there proof that the treatment has increased the survival rates of
people with cancer, or does it simply make people feel better while
the cancer continues to grow?
Often a person's sense of well-being improves when unproven methods of
treatment are begun. The decision to try something new creates hope
and a sense of control. Many of these treatments are innocuous and
have no side effects. (Some, however, are unsafe and can cause
physical problems.) The trouble is that while the unproven treatment
is under way, nothing is actually treating the cancer. Eventually, the
person with cancer realizes this, especially when medical problems
develop. At this time, the real tragedy of relying on unproven
treatment becomes obvious, since the unorthodox practitioner lacks the
skill to care for the person, and proper medical help must then be
EXAMPLES OF UNORTHODOX THERAPIES
Most unproven therapies can be classified as drugs or chemicals, such
as Laetrile. Others are vaccines alleged to help the body fight
cancer. Some are food programs, such as the macrobiotic diet. Often
vitamins and minerals are given with these diets, drugs, and vaccines
(the so-called holistic approach).
Some people wonder about prayer and/or "mind healing." Prayer and
counseling by clergy are important aspects of the patient's total
care. (These methods are discussed in the section SPIRITUAL
The effectiveness of faith, prayer, and "mind healing" as a form of
specific cancer treatment has not been proven. Many advocates of these
methods claim to be scientists and they present facts that sound
"scientific." Many ill people are reassured by the faith healer and
accept the concept since "it can't do any harm."
There has never been any proof that these methods alone have cured
anyone with cancer. Indeed, they often do much harm since the person
later realizes that effective cancer treatment has been delayed.
Feelings of personal failure and depression may result. Faith healers
charge high fees and don't follow up with their patients. In the end,
they create emotional damage.
- The media often presents stories about new, unproven cancer
treatments. You can also buy books, some written by doctors, which
tell about unproven treatments. Some of these stories may present the
new treatment as a cure for cancer that "traditional doctors" are
ignoring. When you hear about these treatments, keep in mind that,
unless a treatment has been tested scientifically, there is no way to
know whether it helps control cancer. Clinical trials are the only way
to prove whether treatments are effective. A journalist who interviews
some people who think they have been helped by an unproven treatment
does NOT constitute scientific proof. A doctor who thinks some of his
or her patients were helped by an unproven treatment does NOT
constitute scientific proof.
- Some people feel hesitant to talk to their doctors about unproven
treatments for fear their doctors will be angry with them for
considering a different treatment. Actually, most doctors are more
than willing to talk about other treatments, especially if you do not
risk your health and life by rejecting conventional treatments for an
If you want to consider adding an unproven treatment to your standard
therapy, tell your doctor and ask for his or her advice. Some patients
need to do "something extra" in order to feel more in control or to
cover all the bases. If this is the case, explain this to your doctor
and discuss the pros and cons. Most will be understanding once they
see that you are not questioning their medical competence. If your
doctor does not understand your need to try an unproven method, it is
still your right, as the person in charge of your life, to use it. But
we hope that you will not do anything that will interfere with
conventional treatments, since they offer you the best chance of a
cure or long-term control of your disease.
Frequently Asked Questions
National Cancer Institute