Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Alternative Medicine for Cancer


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2019| Content last modified Sep 2019
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Cancer is difficult to treat successfully. Many people still die from cancer even though they got the best current treatment. So people naturally look for alternatives that might help cure their cancer. Many try alternative medicines. People may use alternative medicine in place of standard (conventional) treatment or in addition to it.

What is alternative medicine?

Alternative medicine is different from conventional medicine really in just one way. Alternative medicine hasn't been tested scientifically to prove that it works or that it's safe. All drugs sold in the United States must have shown convincing proof that they work before doctors are allowed to prescribe them. Thus, because they haven't been properly tested, alternative medicines can't be marketed as drugs. Alternative medicines usually consist of herbs or plant substances that can be sold as dietary supplements.

  • Most types of alternative medicine haven't been scientifically tested and proved to work

  • Alternative medicine lacks proven benefits and may harm you

What are the risks of using alternative medicine?

Alternative medicine may:

  • Not work to treat your cancer

  • Stop other types of treatment you’re receiving, like chemotherapy, from working as well

  • Cost a lot, making it hard to pay for standard treatment from your doctor

  • Sometimes be toxic

Tell your doctor if you take alternative medicine for cancer to avoid harm.

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