Not only is cancer the second leading cause of death in the United States (after heart disease), its insidious nature gives it a special terror. Most diseases give warning in the form of escalating symptoms, while others strike so suddenly that there’s no time to brood on it. Cancer follows a different, stealthier path. A person who feels perfectly well may come back from the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of potentially fatal cancer and plenty of time to fear what comes next.

Conventional treatments for cancer also have frightening qualities to them: disfiguring surgery, arduous chemotherapy, and treatment with invisible radiation. In many cases, when cancer is found early enough, conventional treatment can lead to a permanent cure. But often the prognosis is given in statistics—a percentage chance of survival—or, worse, in months remaining to live.

No wonder, then, that people turn to alternative medicine. It would be wonderful if there were some powerful alternative approach that could rout cancer at its root. Unfortunately, the reality is that no alternative treatment offers a sure and simple route to recovery. Worse still, there are plenty of unscrupulous people who will take advantage of a cancer victim’s desperation. Even the most scrupulous providers of alternative cancer therapy mislead in one sense: they display a conviction and enthusiasm even though they do not know, in truth, whether their approach really works. It simply isn’t possible for a medical practitioner to fairly judge the effectiveness of a therapy from apparent clinical results. Only double-blind, placebo-controlled studies can do that. (For information on why this form of study is essential, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?)

It is possible, of course, that some alternative therapies for cancer may truly work, even if they haven’t yet been proven. However, we may never know which ones are real and which ones offer only false promises. Proper studies require money and patience with the scientific process, and proponents of alternative cancer therapies may lack one or both of those. In addition, ethical considerations make it difficult to study an unproven therapy for a fatal disease, when therapies that provide a chance of cure are available. For this reason, most studies of alternative therapies for cancer have involved adding a natural treatment to a standard cancer regimen; alternatively, they enrolled individuals who have already failed to respond to existing methods. These latter circumstances could potentially hide the benefits of an effective natural therapy. If a treatment only worked in the absence of chemotherapy, for example (as some alternative cancer therapy proponents claim about their methods) or could only cure early cases of cancer, these ethical obstacles would prevent researchers from finding out.

This article discusses the relatively small amount of information that is known from a scientific perspective about alternative treatments for cancer. We also discuss natural options that may reduce side effects of standard cancer therapies, as well as possible interactions between herbs and supplements and drugs.

Various natural supplements have shown some promise for improving the effectiveness of conventional cancer therapy (specifically, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation ) or reducing its side effects. In most cases, however, the supporting evidence remains weak, and the most rigorous studies have often failed to find benefit.

Note: If you are receiving cancer treatment, do not use any herbs or supplements except under the supervision of your physician.

For information on treatments to prevent cancer, see the Cancer Prevention article.