Alternative Therapies: Knowledge Is Power, but Consider the Source

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Barrie R. Cassileth, MS, PhD

The use of dietary supplements and other complementary and “alternative” therapies by patients with cancer has increased significantly over the past 20 years despite insufficient evidence of safety and effectiveness. Finding reliable sources of information about complementary therapies can be daunting. Patients typically rely on family, friends, and the Internet, often receiving misleading information.

The ASCO Post’s Integrative Oncology series is intended to facilitate the availability of evidence-based information on integrative and complementary therapies commonly used by patients with cancer. With this installment, we present an overview of alternative treatments that your patients may be using.

Compiled by Barrie R. Cassileth, MS, PhD, and Jyothirmai Gubili, MS, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The free About Herbs website is managed by K. Simon Yeung, PharmD, MBA, LAc, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

An enormous amount of information about integrative medicine can be found in printed sources and online. But, a word of caution—some of this information is high quality and scientifically validated, and some is not. Some is downright ugly, as there are many scam artists promoting bogus remedies and cures.

At present, a simple Google search for “alternative cancer” produces over 65 million hits. Two examples of sites that rank highly in that search and should be avoided— and—are representative examples of the numerous sites that provide and/or sell “advice” on a range of therapies purported to cure cancer without mainstream treatment.

On the other hand, there are useful sites that debunk false information, such as the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer and Alternative Medicine site ( and, and others that provide good information on the complementary treatments, their risks, and their benefits.

Scam Alert: Disproved Alternative Therapies

The problem of quackery has been recorded since the 17th century. Some quacks are true charlatans with purely financial motives, while others are believers in what they preach. Both, however, promote unproven or disproved alternative therapies as cures for disease. And unfortunately there is no shortage of patients willing to embark on these questionable and often very expensive treatment plans. The truth is that unproven approaches are dangerous. Even when the therapy itself does not cause harm, people too often choose to shun conventional treatment entirely and replace it with an alternative treatment that does nothing to diminish their disease.

Public education can help minimize this problem, along with knowledgeable doctors who are familiar enough with alternative approaches to successfully guide patients away from them. Several of the alternative approaches promoted to cancer patients that lack evidence to support their usage are discussed herein.

Caution: All treatments listed here should be avoided.

Electrical Devices

These are devices used to neutralize unhealthy energy of cancer cells; this may also be referred to as bioresonance therapy. The concept is based on a belief that diseased tissues emit “electromagnetic oscillations” that are distinct from those of healthy cells. Devices promise to diagnose and treat cancer and other diseases with the use of electromagnetic fields and currents. Such a claim is unsupported by science.

Recommended: NO

Energy Therapies

“Therapeutic touch” and application of electromagnetic energy are treatments applied in the belief that energy fields exist around the body and that those fields can be manipulated to treat disease and restore health. Neither the existence of such energy fields nor the ability to manipulate them for greater health is supported by scientific evidence.

Recommended: NO


A liquid formulation, also called CanCell, Cantron, Protocel, and others, entelev is a brown liquid composed of several chemical compounds. It was created in 1936 by chemist James Sheridan. Over the years, it has been touted to treat a variety of chronic diseases in addition to cancer, including HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease. Animal studies have shown no evidence of anticancer activity, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made it illegal to distribute entelev across state lines in 1989.

Recommended: NO


Essiac is an herbal product that is available in a tea, pill, or liquid. It is also called Flor-Essence. This herb was originally popularized in the 1920s by a Canadian nurse named Rene Caisse. (In fact, the herb got its name from a reverse spelling of her name.) It started as a blend of four herbs, but other herbs have been added over the intervening years. While it is readily available online and in health food stores, there is lack of data on its safety and efficacy. No clinical evidence supports its use.

Recommended: NO


Healers will promote “Touch,” which is also called biofield therapy, healing touch, and energy therapy. Therapeutic touch is practiced by passing hands above a patient’s body to sweep away blockages in the patient’s energy. Neither the existence of such energy fields nor the ability to manipulate them for greater health is supported by scientific evidence.

Recommended: NO

Homeopathic Medicine

A liquid formulation, the practice of homeopathy was begun in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann. This is based on the theory that “like cures like.” A substance that causes disease in a person can be used diluted to cure the same disease. Homeopathy has been the object of many clinical studies. At best, the homeopathic “medicines” had no better results than placebos, and at worst, homeopathy can be actively harmful.

Recommended: NO

Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatments

In hyperbaric oxygen treatments, the patient is placed in an oxygen-rich chamber. Although hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to treat decompression sickness, carbon monoxide poisoning, and some types of burns, no scientific evidence supports its use in treating cancer.

Recommended: NO (has medical uses but not in cancer treatment)


Laetrile is available in oral or intravenous formulations and is also called amygdalin and vitamin B17. Years of study found no anticancer activity.

Recommended: NO

Mind-Body Techniques

Meditation or biofeedback is based on the theory that patients can harness the power of their mind to heal their physical ills. Techniques, such as meditation and biofeedback have been shown to reduce stress and promote relaxation, and they can be used as effective complementary therapies. However, claims that stress and other emotional issues can cause diseases such as cancer and that correcting those issues alone can effectively treat those diseases have no support in scientific evidence.

Recommended: NO (can be used as complementary therapy with traditional treatment).

Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen therapy is available in pills or via intravenous oxygen, oral and intravenous hydrogen peroxide, and infusion of ozone-treated blood. There is no scientific evidence to support a tumor’s need for an oxygen-poor environment, that oxygen is absorbed during digestion, or that any form of oxygen therapy has any efficacy. Even more concerning, serious adverse effects have been reported.

Recommended: NO


Although prayer may be helpful when used in conjunction with appropriate mainstream treatment, some patients elect to forgo care in the hope that prayer alone will heal them. A recent research review found that, although certain individual studies suggest some benefit from intercessory prayer, there is no clear evidence that it has any impact on clinical outcomes. Prayer may be useful, but not as an alternative to mainstream cancer treatment.

Recommended: Not as an alternative treatment (can be used as complementary therapy with traditional treatment).

Shark Cartilage

Shark cartilage is available in powder and liquid formulations. In the 1950s, surgeon John Prudden began testing the use of animal cartilage. It is purported to reduce the size of tumors by preventing blood vessel growth to the tumor. A few early animal studies supported an antitumor effect, but results from clinical studies since then have not been promising. 

Recommended: NO ■

Adapted with permission from: Cassileth B: Survivorship: Living Well During and After Cancer. Spry Publishing, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Copyright 2014 by Barrie Cassileth, PhD. Available at Amazon and other booksellers.


Integrative Oncology is guest edited by Barrie R. Cassileth, MS, PhD, Chief of the Integrative Medicine Service and Laurance S. Rockefeller Chair in Integrative Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York.

The Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center developed and maintains a free website—About Herbs (—that provides objective and unbiased information about herbs, vitamins, minerals, and other dietary supplements, and unproved anticancer treatments. Each of the close to 300 and growing number of entries offers health-care professional and patient versions, and entries are regularly updated with the latest research findings.