By Susan Burke March
The experts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, founded in 1884 in New York City, are revolutionaries in cancer care. Rather than a “one-size-fits-all” treatment plan, they are a forward-looking bunch. Since 1999, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Integrative Medicine Service has provided complementary therapies that improve quality of life for patients by helping them alleviate symptoms of cancer and cancer therapies.
MSK writes, “… We believe in caring for the whole person — not just the disease or symptom. Integrative medicine weaves natural treatments such as acupuncture, massage, and yoga into your overall care plan. All of our holistic health services and programs are based on the latest scientific evidence.”
Integrative therapies offered by MSK are designed to better handle the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, to minimize anxiety, depression, and stress, and to control fatigue, dry mouth, neuropathy, and other side effects. They also work with patients to improve muscle strength, balance, and endurance, and to prevent and treat lymphedema, a common side effect of cancer treatment using herbs, botanicals, and other products.
Complementary therapies can be used as adjuncts to mainstream cancer care. A diagnosis of cancer is devastating, and patients often worry that the conventional treatment won’t work or it will have significant side effects.
Some go online to find alternatives — and alternatives abound — but they’re not really alternatives.
Alternative treatment means that it will work as well as conventional treatment. The assumption is the results will be at least as effective or even better than the proven treatment. And that is when people get into trouble.
A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, January 2018, found that patients who opted for alternative treatment over conventional treatment for curable cancer are far more likely to die of their cancer. Women with breast cancer who used alternative treatments over conventional cancer therapy had a fivefold increased risk of death.
Words matter. The researchers note that complementary and integrative medicines are not the same as alternative. Alternative therapies are used in place of conventional treatment.
As MSK writes, “Therapies such as acupuncture and massage can be a useful complement to conventional methods of treating cancer. But “cure-all” solutions that claim to eliminate disease naturally aren’t proven to work — and can actually be dangerous for people with cancer.”
MSK’s pharmacist and herbalist K. Simon Yeung writes, “…The people promoting these treatments might not necessarily have a medical or oncology background. In addition, patients who try these therapies may find, when they come back to seek mainstream treatment, that it’s too late and their cancer has already spread.”
Dr. Yeung manages MSK’s About Herb database, created and maintained by MSK’s Integrative Medicine Service. Some cancer therapies that Dr. Yeung reviews are cannabis oil, Laetrile, and a pH manipulation (aka ‘alkaline diet’). He notes that these “therapies” are thus far supported only by anecdotal evidence, and are not supported by scientific trials.
Correlation does not equal causation. There is no clinical evidence that a vegan diet, or a raw food diet, or colon cleanses or getting zapped with a Rife machine (a treatment with very low-frequency radio waves) will shrink your tumor or cure your cancer.
MSK writes, “Many people offering testimonials to the effectiveness of such treatments may attribute benefits to them simply because their condition improved after using them — when the actual cause for the improvement is unrelated. The good news is that mainstream cancer therapies are safer and more effective than ever.
New chemotherapies work better with fewer side effects, and novel drugs target specific mutations in cancer cells to minimize harm to healthy cells. Highly precise forms or radiation therapy destroy tumors while sparing normal tissue. New approaches harness the body’s own immune powers to destroy cancer cells. And new surgical techniques are making it possible to remove tumors more safely while minimizing both risk of recurrence and recovery times.”
Adopting a healthy diet plan, reducing the amount of meat in your diet (especially processed meats like hot dogs and sausage), avoiding additives and preservatives and foods cooked with refined vegetable oils, and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables is a proven way to improve your chances of staying healthy. Lower risk further by consuming alcohol in moderation and not smoking.
Log in to the About Herbs database. “Determining whether herbs, vitamins, and other over-the-counter dietary supplements would be helpful or harmful to you can be challenging. Will a substance work as the label states it will? Is it likely to interact with your cancer medicines? Is it worth the cost?”
There is no shortage of myths about cancer causes and treatments. Cancer Research UK debunks the top 10 here.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in disease prevention and evidence-based medicine. The Task Force works to improve the health of all Americans by making evidence-based recommendations about clinical preventive services. Log in to find the most up-to-date recommendations for screening specific to the disease/condition and your age here.
Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Use of alternative medicine for cancer and its impact on survival.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The Integrative Medicine Service marks a decade of caring for patients.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The truth behind three natural cancer “cures.”