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Alternative Medicine for Cancer

Annette McDermott
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Herbal medication

If you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, you'll want to find the best treatments available. Most people are familiar with conventional cancer treatments like radiation or chemotherapy, but if you're interested in learning about alternative medicine for cancer, there are many options to consider.

Types of Alternative Medicines for Cancer

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) categorizes alternative cancer treatments into four groups: alternative medical systems, mind body methods, nutritional methods, and pharmacologic and biologic treatments. Alternative cancer treatments are often used to treat the symptoms of cancer or relieve the side effects of cancer treatments.

Each treatment is considered either alternative or complementary. Alternative medicine is used instead of conventional treatments while complementary medicine is used in combination with conventional treatments.

Alternative Medical Systems

According to NCI, this group of alternative medicine is based on a natural approach to healing that balances the body, mind, and spirit. It includes Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Homeopathic medicine, and Naturopathic medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

This type of medicine originated in China thousands of years ago and includes treatments such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, and massage. According to the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the theory of yin and yang, the idea of two opposing yet complementary forces at work in the body: qi, the body's life force that needs to be in harmony to maintain good health, and five elements -- fire, wood, earth, metal, and water -- that each correspond with specific tissues and body organs.

  • Acupuncture: During this process, thin stainless steel needles are strategically placed in specific parts of the body to encourage energy flow and healing. The American Cancer Society indicates that although studies do not show acupuncture to cure cancer, it may help relieve cancer symptoms and cancer treatment symptoms such as nausea and pain.
  • Herbal Medicines: Herbs play a large role in TCM remedies. According to the American Cancer Society, some Chinese studies show many TCM herbs to be effective against cancer; however, these studies may not reveal the whole picture and more controlled studies are needed to prove their efficacy. Some TCM remedies do appear promising. For example, a National Institutes of Health study on a common TCM herb, Oldenlandia diffusa, shows the herb inhibits the growth of cancer cells and is potentially an anti-cancer substance.

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurvedic Medicine originated in India centuries ago and is used to bring the body, mind, and spirit into harmony with one another, leading to wellness. According to NCCAM, Ayurvedic medicine is based on the idea that every person has a primary life force, or dosha, that must be in perfect balance to maintain good health. Once a person's primary dosha is determined, steps can be taken through diet and lifestyle to balance that dosha and treat disease.

Herbs, plants, and essential oils play a critical role in Ayurvedic medicine and possibly to treat cancer. The American Cancer Society states that studies show some Ayurvredic herbs, such as turmeric and garlic, may help treat cancer. However, they do caution that, while early laboratory studies are promising, much more research is needed.

Homeopathic Medicine

Homeopathy treats individuals with highly diluted substances to trigger the body's natural healing defenses. Although it's unclear exactly how the process works, it's believed to be similar to that of someone with severe allergies receiving allergy shots containing small amounts of allergen, or providing immunizations containing small amounts of live or dead virus in order to build the body's tolerance.

NCCAM indicates that homeopathic medicine remains controversial in the United States because preparations often vary in quality and consistency leading to potentially serious side effects. However, studies do show that some homeopathic remedies may be beneficial in treating cancer and cancer symptoms:

  • Breast cancer: An exciting in-vitro study in India showed specific homeopathic remedies slowed the rate of multiplication in breast cancer cells -- continued studies are ongoing.
  • Cancer symptoms: The University of Maryland Medical Center's (UMM) website mentions that evidence shows homeopathy may be helpful in treating cancer symptoms, pain and fatigue and upper respiratory disorders.

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathy is based on the belief that nature has provided us with all means necessary to heal the body from disease and maintain optimal health. Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) uses naturopathy to support the immune system and reduce the side effects of cancer treatments such as nausea and fatigue. CTCA's website indicates that naturopathy support may include one or all of the following:

  • Herbal remedies including teas and extracts
  • Supplements including minerals, vitamins, and amino acids
  • Homeopathic remedies
  • Physical and exercise therapy including massage
  • Hydrotherapy, the use of targeted hot and cold water wraps or soaks for therapeutic benefit
  • Lifestyle counseling
  • Acupuncture

Mind-Body Treatment Methods

These types of treatments focus on using the body's natural healing mechanisms to relieve symptoms and are often used in partnership with conventional cancer treatments.

Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

This procedure uses essential oils from natural botanicals to reduce stress and anxiety. UMM's website says that the inhalation of essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, rose, lemon or chamomile may help reduce anxiety, lessen pain, and relieve nausea and depression, especially when combined with therapeutic massage. It's believed the benefit occurs because certain scents stimulate the brain's mood centers in a positive way. In fact, a study on cancer patients undergoing aromatherapy and massage showed that the therapy offers short term psychological benefits.


The Hypnosis Motivation Institute's (HMI) website defines hypnosis as, "a state of heightened awareness coupled with a deep sense of physical relaxation while remaining focused on a single idea or series of related ideas." It's believed that hypnosis may help create a sense of control in cancer patients as well as help ease uncomfortable cancer treatment side effects.

HMI mentions that studies show hypnosis helps relieve pain, reduce anxiety, and reduce common post-operative complications in cancer patients such as nausea or vomiting. In addition, HMI believes that patients can strengthen their immune systems and improve their odds of surviving cancer when they envision themselves actively battling and beating the disease.


A National Institutes of Health abstract shows that spirituality and religion are important to advanced cancer patients and improves overall quality of life. However, where spirituality may comfort some cancer patients, it may cause stress to others who believe their illness is a form of punishment or they may question the purpose of their suffering. Either way, it's important for caregivers and doctors to discuss spiritual beliefs with patients and offer support and coping resources.


There is some evidence showing that certain foods and supplements may not only help reduce the risk of developing cancer but, in some cases, help treat the disease.

Supplements and Cancer-Fighting Foods

Supplements are usually taken in pill or liquid form and are used to help boost immunity and improve overall health in order to prevent or fight disease. Nutrients may also be obtained by eating certain whole foods. The following supplements and foods may be beneficial in preventing and/or fighting cancer:

  • Coenzyme Q10 (Co-Q10): Co-Q10 is a naturally occurring antioxidant in the body that supports cell growth and protects cells. NCI's website states that studies show the supplement may improve the immune system, protect the heart from the damaging effects of the cancer drug doxorubicin, and help breast cancer patients.
  • The Gonzalez Protocol: Dr. Andrew Weil, a leading integrative and alternative health care practitioner, mentions an interesting potential treatment for pancreatic cancer known as the Gonzalez Protocol on his website. This protocol, created by Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, uses pancreatic enzymes and dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, magnesium citrate, animal glandular substances, coffee enemas, and raw fruits and vegetables to battle pancreatic cancers. NCCAM funded a five year study on the Gonzalez Protocol which found survival rates to be higher than those using conventional cancer treatments.
  • Melatonin: According to information published by the University of Connecticut, melatonin may slow or halted the growth of cancer cells. In addition, studies show melatonin used alone and in combination with conventional treatment may prolong the survival rates of advanced stage cancers.
  • Gerson Therapy: This therapy, created by the now-deceased Dr. Max Gerson, uses organic, raw fruit and vegetable juices, a strict vegetarian diet, coffee enemas, and supplements to harness the body's natural healing power and cure disease. The therapy requires patients to consume a large amount of and vegetables daily, most of it in the form of raw juice. This enables the body to be inundated with healing enzymes and nutrients while the coffee enemas are believed to help purge the body of toxins. While the Gerson Therapy remains controversial and no clinical studies have proven it to be effective, retrospective studies show the therapy to improve cancer survival rates and psychological health.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research's website, the following foods contain powerful substances believed to fight cancer including but not limited to antioxidants, phytochemicals, omega fatty acids, dietary fiber, flavonoids, and/or polyphenols:

  • Apples
  • Green tea
  • Berries, especially blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Cruciferous and dark, leafy green vegetables
  • Flaxseed
  • Grapefruit
  • Winter squash
  • Garlic
  • Grapes
  • Tomatoes
  • Whole grains

Pharmaceuticals and Herbal Medicines

The National Center for Biotechology Information lists several alternative, complementary cancer treatments on its website. Many are not supported by scientific studies; however, the following treatments have shown encouraging -- if sometimes controversial -- results.

  • High Dose Vitamin C: Lab studies show high vitamin C doses may slow the growth and spread of some cancer cells. In addition, vitamin C taken orally may increase quality of life and help ease common cancer symptoms.
  • Cannabis (Marijuana): Medical marijuana has been used for some time to lessen the discomfort of nausea related to chemotherapy and cancer pain but the herb may be beneficial in other ways as well. Cannabinoids, the active chemical substances in Cannabis, are now believed to have anticancer properties that may be useful in treating breast tumors.
  • Milk Thistle: UMM's website mentions that milk thistle's cancer-fighting benefits come from its content of silymarin which help protect cells, and cites several studies that show milk thistle may be a beneficial herbal cancer medicine. For example, laboratory studies show silymarin may increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs and have anticancer properties in certain types of cancers. In addition, a randomized clinical trial indicated that silymarin reduced the symptoms of chemotherapy on the liver in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
  • Mistletoe: While most people know mistletoe for its holiday charm, it's also a potential cancer fighting powerhouse. According to NCCAM, mistletoe has been shown to kill cancer cells and boost the immune system, and the plant is regularly used in Europe as a treatment for cancer.
  • Selected Vegetables/Sun's Soup: According to the National Institutes of Health, these vegetable and herbal mixtures are being studied as potential cancer treatments. Each mixture contains ingredients that early studies show may slow the growth of cancer cells and improve overall quality of life and cancer survival rates.
  • Asian Ginseng: Studies show this plant may reduce the risk of developing cancer and possibly reduce tumor size.
  • Ginger has long been known for its anti-nausea effects which may help reduce chemotherapy related nausea and vomiting, but recent studies in mice show the herb may also reduce the growth of colon cancer cells -- additional studies are currently ongoing.

What You Need to Know

While any potential cancer treatment is exciting, it's important to note that most alternative remedies are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. While many studies show encouraging outcomes, some results are unclear and require further study to prove their efficacy.

In addition, the quality of alternative and herbal remedies can differ greatly by supplier and practitioner which often causes results to vary. Many herbal ingredients are potent and may cause negative side effects or interact with other medications. As a result, it's critical to consult a physician before using any alternative remedy to treat cancer or any other illness.

Natural Healing

Alternative medicine for cancer uses natural ingredients and gentle methods to restore physical, emotional, and spiritual health. If you're interested in alternative cancer treatments, have an open conversation with your doctor to determine the best way to integrate the options into a powerful cancer treatment plan.

Alternative Medicine for Cancer