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 following questions:

  • 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 Therapy.

  • 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 sought.


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 COUNSELING.)

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 unproven one.
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.


Getting Second Opinions
by Bob Riter
July 24, 2013