OncoLink

Watch out for a hoax when considering unconventional medical treatments

James Metz, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: September 11, 2013

Unconventional medical treatments for cancer are routinely presented to patients and the public though television, the Internet, magazines and newspapers. Some unconventional therapies may one day prove to help cancer patients. Therapies are classified as 'alternative' or 'unconventional' because they have not been proven to benefit cancer patients in controlled clinical trials. It is a challenge to differentiate those techniques that offer promise from those that are hoaxes.

Many individuals claim that natural products are better to combat cancer than conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. Poison ivy is natural, but most patients would not go and rub it intentionally all over their body. Rattlesnakes are natural, but most patients would not try to be bitten by one. Obviously, just because something is natural does not mean it is effective and safe. It is true that many of the therapies used today were discovered in nature. For instance, a commonly used chemotherapy medication called paclitaxel came from the bark of the Yew tree. The compound has been copied and can now be synthetically produced.  Natural compounds used for cancer treatment have been isolated, standardized, and purified. They have also been rigorously tested in controlled clinical trials to establish the effectiveness of the agent and its side effect profile.

Cancer patients are prime targets for unscrupulous individuals who attempt to gain financially from the misfortunes of others. Always remember, if a treatment sounds too good to be true, it may be a hoax. Here are some classic signs of a hoax that should put a cancer patient on alert:

  • The treatment is a "secret" that only specific individuals can provide.
  • Patients are told not to use conventional medical treatment.
  • The treatment promises a cure for almost all cancers or medical conditions.
  • The treatment is only promoted in the mass media such as the Internet, talk shows, and books instead of reputable scientific journals.
  • The promoters claim they are persecuted by the medical establishment.
  • Advertisements for the treatment claim to "cleanse the body of poisons and toxins".
  • The treatment will help the patient by "strengthening the immune system".
  • Testimonials and case reports are used to promote a specific treatment or product.
  • Catch phrases such as "nontoxic", "no side effects" and "painless" are used.
  • The promoters attack the medical community.
If you are considering an alternative or complementary treatment be cautious and aware of any of the above claims. Always tell your doctor if you are considering any such treatment. Certain treatments may be helpful but others may interfere with your traditional treatments.