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Alternative Medicine for Cancer

By

Robert Peter Gale

, MD, PhD, Imperial College London

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020
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Some people turn to alternative medicine, including certain medicinal herbs, to treat their cancer, instead of or in addition to standard treatment. However, most types of alternative medicine have not been subjected to careful scientific studies. Thus, very little is known about the effectiveness of alternative medicine in treating cancer.

People may also use forms of alternative medicine to help manage the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment. For example, acupuncture may help prevent the nausea that sometimes accompanies chemotherapy. Yoga and stress reduction techniques may help people manage the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis. Use of marijuana and other related substances (cannabinoids) has been legalized in some states mainly as palliative care to treat pain, relieve nausea, and improve appetite in people with advanced cancer.

Although benefits of alternative medicine for cancer have not been scientifically proven, there is significant potential for harm because

  • The alternative medicine may be toxic.

  • The alternative medicine may interact with standard treatment, such as chemotherapy or medicine that people take for other disorders, thus reducing its effectiveness.

  • The alternative medicine may be costly, reducing the person’s ability to afford standard treatment.

  • If alternative medicine is used instead of standard treatment or delays standard treatment, the person will not obtain the proven benefits of standard treatment.

People using alternative medicine should inform their doctor. Hiding the use of alternative medicine could be harmful.

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