Alternative vs conventional treatments for cancer

Self-professed wellness bloggers have come under fire recently for their dubious claims concerning ‘alternative’ treatments for cancer. 

Bupa’s National Medical Director, Dr Chris Dalton, weighs in on the debate and discusses the pros, cons and considerations of using ‘alternative’ treatments for cancer.

Recent media outrage over wellness bloggers giving dangerous advice to cancer patients has left many questioning the role of ‘natural’ therapies in cancer treatment. 

The real question: do ‘natural’ therapies work?

While there is a place for some natural therapies in cancer management, the real issue is not what is ‘natural’, ‘alternative’ or ‘conventional’, but what works or doesn’t work. 

Often with ‘alternative’ therapies there is no reliable evidence about their benefit or whether they actually work or not. And if this is the case, doctors generally discourage patients from using them. Particularly when the ‘alternative’ treatment may actually harm the patient or stop them from accessing other traditional cancer treatments that are proven to be effective. 
 
Gerson Therapy is one example of an alternative therapy that is promoted as a treatment for cancer, arthritis, diabetes and other conditions, that is not endorsed by any reputable medical organisation, nor supported by reliable evidence. Therefore, doctors advise their patients against pursuing it.
 
Vitamin supplementation is another somewhat controversial area in cancer control, so should always be discussed with your doctor. As always, with any medical condition, a sensible well-balanced diet is the best option and the advice of a dietitian can be helpful.
 
It always needs to be emphasised that there are only three conventional treatments with any hope of actually curing a cancer: chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery or a combination of the three.
Gerson therapy

What are the risks of natural therapies?

By choosing to undergo natural therapies, some patients may avoid or be discouraged from accessing other effective treatments. Some natural therapies are also potentially harmful and may be very expensive.
 
If the unconventional therapy seems extreme, it should be avoided, and any alternative practitioner who advises their treatment to the exclusion of conventional medical therapy should also be avoided. 

Enemas can be harmful, especially if used repeatedly. Taking large doses of anything, such as fruit or fruit extracts, herbs or vitamins can also be dangerous. 

Some treatments, such as laetrile, are not only ineffective but can be dangerously toxic. In the case of laetrile, a chemical found in the stones of some fruits, raw nuts and plants, this is because the anticancer ingredient is cyanide.

The potential benefits of natural therapies

Some natural therapies, together with conventional medical treatments, may be helpful for some people with regard to pain relief, relaxation and general wellbeing. For example, some mind-body interventions can be helpful for relaxation and pain control. These include:
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • General psychosocial support
  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Exercise therapy
  • Meditation
  • Hypnosis
  • Thai Chi
  • Massage and aromatherapy
Certain dietary supplements and foods may also be helpful in preventing or treating some cancers together with any conventional medical treatment. These include citrus fruits, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale or Brussels sprouts, soy, vitamin C, mushrooms, turmeric and pomegranate.
 
Some herbs (such as mistletoe and ginseng) and Chinese herbal medicines have also been used to alleviate nausea and vomiting from some types of chemotherapy.
lady meditating on the beach

Natural therapies checklist

The following questions from Cancer Council Australia are helpful to ask when considering having alternative therapy in conjunction with conventional treatments for cancer:
  1. Is there any reliable evidence that supports the treatment’s claims?
  2. Is this therapy specifically used for cancer patients or for people with other conditions?
  3. Are there any side effects and what are they?
  4. Does it affect any of the other conventional medical treatments I am receiving? 
  5. Who will be involved in delivering the therapy?
  6. What are their qualifications and are they registered with a recognised and reputable professional organisation?
  7. What are the costs of the therapy and does my health-insurance provider cover them?
Many, if not most, patients with a cancer diagnosis will use some form of ‘natural therapy’ at some stage in their treatment. 

People considering undergoing natural therapies should always discuss these issues with their GP or cancer specialist first, so that they can receive guidance concerning what may be helpful. In this way, as much as possible, they can be protected from unnecessary harm and not prevented from accessing effective treatments.

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