The Truth behind Three Natural Cancer “Cures”

By Maureen Salamon,

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Cannabis oil is often heralded as an alternative cure for cancer

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.

  • Complementary therapies can be used as adjuncts to mainstream cancer care.
  • But using unproven cures can be harmful for cancer patients.
  • They also haven’t been shown to work.
  • Some of these can hamper the effectiveness of treatment.
  • Mainstream therapies are more successful and less damaging than ever.

The Internet is full of “miracle cures” for cancer and alleged surefire ways to prevent it, and well-meaning people may urge cancer patients to just try them out in hopes of eliminating their disease. Some patients, worried that conventional treatments won’t work or pose significant side effects, seek a treatment whose effectiveness isn’t actually supported by scientific evidence or may even prove dangerous. During a time of uncertainty and anxiety, it’s understandable that any hope for a cure — even if it isn’t medically proven — is tempting.

“Patients want something ‘natural’ to try to treat their cancer or prevent their cancer from coming back,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering pharmacist and herbalist K. Simon Yeung. “But 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 is manager of the About Herbs database, created and maintained by MSK’s Integrative Medicine Service. The service provides complementary therapies such as acupuncture, music therapy, and massage that are used in addition to — not as alternatives for — mainstream cancer approaches such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Here, Dr. Yeung explains the hype and the scientific evidence surrounding three highly publicized but unproven therapies: cannabis oil, Laetrile, and a pH-manipulation (also known as alkaline) diet.

Cannabis Oil

The hype: Cannabis oil is often heralded as a treatment to destroy or shrink cancerous tumors, as well as a cure for diabetes, ulcers, arthritis, migraines, insomnia, infections, and many other diseases. Also called marijuana oil or hemp oil, it’s extracted from marijuana plants, often with higher proportion of a compound known as CBD (cannabidiol), which has less of a psychoactive effect than the more-famous THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) compound that gets marijuana users high.

Cannabis oil is available in several forms with different potencies. It can be infused into cooking oil that users squirt under the tongue or mix into food. Its vapors can also be inhaled. By federal law, cannabis products are illegal, though several states have enacted laws to legalize their medical use.  

The evidence: While commercially available cannabis compounds are FDA-approved to reduce cancer treatment–related side effects such as nausea and vomiting and to improve appetite, no clinical trials have shown that cannabis products can treat cancer.

Claims that cannabis oil cures cancer are anecdotal and largely unsupportable, based on scant research done in mice and in labs. Side effects can include memory and attention loss. Perhaps most important, there is evidence that cannabis compounds may inhibit enzymes that patients need to metabolize other anticancer drugs, thereby increasing their toxicity or reducing their effectiveness.   

The verdict: “So far, there are no human studies that show cannabis oil can be used as cancer treatment,” Dr. Yeung says. “Patients who are using it — or any form of marijuana — should let their doctors know so they can advise you properly.”

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The hype: Laetrile, first popularized as a cancer therapy in Russia and the United States more than a century ago, is the trade name for a purified form of amygdalin, an extract derived from apricot pits and some nuts and plants. Intestinal enzymes break down Laetrile to produce cyanide, which proponents claim kills cancer cells and leaves normal tissue unharmed. Some also claim that Laetrile is actually a vitamin called B-17 and that deficiencies can cause certain cancers. Banned in the United States, an oral form of Laetrile is available in other countries.

The evidence: Laetrile indeed breaks down into cyanide, but the poison doesn’t just selectively strike cancer cells — it can sicken or kill patients as well. Clinical studies done in the 1970s and 1980s, including those sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, indicated that Laetrile didn’t reduce malignant tumors’ size or growth, but some patients experienced cyanide poisoning.   

The verdict: “Laetrile has not been proven to be effective against cancer and can even be dangerous to some patients,” Dr. Yeung says. “If amygdalin is eventually used in an anticancer drug, it will have to be in a different form, because the oral form is toxic and too dangerous to use.”

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Manipulating pH Levels through Diet

The hype: Based on the scientific observation that cancer cells thrive in an acidic environment — meaning low pH levels — some people contend that highly “acidic” foods such as meat, cheese, and grain products raise the risk of cancer by reducing pH levels in the blood. They claim that eating “alkaline” foods such as fruit, green vegetables, and other plant-based products discourages the growth of cancer cells by raising blood pH levels and tout the benefits of the alkaline diet (also known as the alkaline ash diet or alkaline acid diet).

The evidence: Cancer cells create an acidic microenvironment due to a high metabolic rate. Cancer cells can’t live in a highly alkaline environment, but neither can healthy cells. Your body works to keep pH levels constant, and changing your diet is not going to substantially change the pH levels of your blood, which are tightly regulated by the kidneys and lungs regardless of foods consumed.

The pH of bodily fluids, such as saliva and urine, does change temporarily depending on the foods you eat, but that doesn’t affect blood pH levels (or, hence, the environment of cancer cells in the body). In fact, any significant deviation in blood pH levels can cause serious, even life-threatening conditions known as acidosis (low pH) or alkalosis (high pH)

The verdict: “There is no evidence that changing your diet to alter pH levels affects cancer growth,” Dr. Yeung says. “The actual science has been misinterpreted. Changing the pH in your saliva doesn’t mean your blood pH changes. Some patients try using chemicals to modify their blood pH, but that can be extremely dangerous.”

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The Bottom Line

“Natural” cancer therapies should be regarded with great caution because most are unsupported by evidence. 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 of 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.  

If you’re considering using a complementary therapy in addition to your traditional cancer treatments, always check with a reputable source such as our About Herbs database or the National Cancer Institute, and always tell your doctor.

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Is SK involved in the clinical trial of Sativex for treating GBM? Whether you are or are not, you should mention it in your article. There are a number of serious researchers working on cannabinoids for cancer therapy, some very exciting results have been shown in animal models, and there's solid science behind the belief that the compounds in Marijuana show tremendous promise -- going back to Manuel Guzman's landmark paper in Nature Reviews Cancer and numerous other papers in highly respected scientific journals. Many highly respected universities and pharmaceutical companies are dong work in this area. If SK isn't, it should be. :-)

Yet you also reiki, reflexology, qi gong acupuncture and other nonsense with an equal lack of efficacy.

Mark, we sent your comment to Dr. Yeung, who responded: "These complementary therapies do not cure cancer. They are used to relieve symptoms, such as pain and fatigue, associated with cancer or cancer treatments, and to improve quality of life of both patients and survivors. Several studies show that these therapies are safe and effective when performed by trained practitioners." If you'd like to learn more about our approach to integrative medicine, you can visit… Thank you for your comment.

What about the work on anti-cancer properties of phyto-cannabinoids of Dr. Christina Sanchez?
What about the Virginia study, 1974. Which was terminated, after one found that THC actually shrinks brain tumors in mice. Okay, not really proof. What about the thousands of anecdotical stories, Rick Simpson story.

This is a ridiculous article especially the part related to cannabis oil. How are we to go to the doctors for advice who have no training/knowledge about an illegal 'drug'. I would much rather listen to people with testimonials about their experiences with cannabis oil than the money driven pharmaceutical labs. New chemotherapy?less side effects?Please chemotherapy has led to more deaths in any year than the entire existence of cannabis to the human knowledge. As a cancer patient why not try something that has no known fatalities then jump into a machine that kills you slowly, God forbid you might have a laugh. How does one organisational body declare a plant that they have no clue how it came into existence a drug after no research,no trials, thereafter patent the same plant for its medicinal properties. Tobacco has caused cancer,pain killers cause addiction,alcohol causes all types of messes but cannabis which might help all types of problems from epilepsy to cancer remains illegal.

And what about these survivors (not just a few but many) . They were given up by all doctors and still got better by using cannabis oil
Even the FDA acknowledged last week that Cannabis kills cancer cells.
How doi you explain that ? I think you all are working for the Farma maffia, the biggest criminals in this age after the arms dealers
Otherwise there is no way I can explain your ignorance

The information in the article is just as important today as it was years ago. It's important that we remind the public fairly regularly about evidence-based cures for Cancer and separate what the complementary therapies are.

Mark, all of those things you listed are offered in conjunction with traditional therapies. Those holistic treatments do not eliminate cancer but they can be invaluable in the reduction of stress and pain. MSKCC also offers the services of Social Workers, Physical Therapists, Psychiatrists, Occupational Therapists, Nutritionists etc. The whole patient approach is instrumental in the efficacy of each patients treatment plan. When you're fighting for your life, every weapon in the arsenal helps.

I have seen more folk die of chemo and chemo related issues than of holistic methods. I have seen more folk survive both the cancer and the western treatments when employing holistic methods. Tell that to your sonograms and blood tests.

Cannabis oil is unsupportable based on scant research? Why at this point in time research is so scant? If people are advising they are experiencing benefits from it, why is there not more research being done?

While intellicually, i know the information you have given is correct, emotionally, I don't want to die tomorrow, so I will be looking at alternative meficine. It is great the MSK, MD Anderson, and other high quality hospitals can debunk homopathic cures, those of us that live in podunk and have surgeons and oncs telling us we are going to die in a year are screwed! Doctors say there are new meds coming down the pike, and our surgeons and oncs are 10-15 years behind. Tell the surgeons and oncs what these new treatments are, what is in the works, how to keep us well until they are ready. Get them on board. I was diagnosised stage 4 colon cancer, surgeon said get your affairs in order (whatever that means) onc said: we'll do this and hope for the best. Went to a university hospital and and they gave me options. I have hope. Surgery, radiation, and many new options. Tell your providers and specialist to give people hope and maybe they won't be running to ever cure on the internet. Starts with YOUR profession!!!!!

The medical establishment is far too quick to dismiss non-traditional treatments endorsed by testimonial evidence. Most historic medical breakthroughs resulted from individuals reporting positive results from exposure to particular substances. Stop assuming everyone, except an M.D., is a fraud. I recently mentioned to a doctor that for years I took brewers' yeast tablets. He laughed it off, until I insisted that their use esentially got me through the rigors of law school.

Why hasn't there been any human studies on so called, "Medical Marijuana;" My thoughts are that while we all appreciate "Big Pharma," there is no money to be made on it!

Is MSKCC's policy of treating the patients they choose unconstitutional? Particularly since they accept federal grant funding.

If you would like to talk about your concerns with someone, you can call our Office of Patient Representatives at 212-639-7202 to discuss this in more detail. Thank you for your comment.

This blog post has received many comments asking for our researchers’ thoughts on particular studies and anecdotal observations about cannabis as a cancer treatment. To reiterate MSK's position: There have been a few laboratory studies of cannabis oil suggesting it may have anticancer activity, but there are no good clinical data supporting its efficacy as a cancer treatment. Cancer patients who rely only on cannabis oil as an anticancer agent miss the opportunity for treatments that are shown to be effective in rigorous clinical studies.

Learn more about how clinical trials work:…

To read about scientific studies on Laetrile, visit our About Herbs database (…) or download our app for Apple devices (

Thank you for your comments.

My daughter had breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy. Then she went solely into holistic treatments, taking dozens of herbs daily. Her cancer returned and spread; then it was diagnosed as Neuro Endochrin carcinoma. My daughter died. I believe that she should not have gone completely holistic

I am a cannabis advocate yet I must agree, at least in part, that cannabis oil is not a CURE for cancer at this time. Cannabis has been shown to lessen the chance of contracting many cancers and may improve ones chances of treating some cancers successfully.

It would be foolish to depend on cannabis as ones only treatment at this s time. There are trials ongoing in Spain, Isreal and other countries but none have been concluded and most have not moved past the animal testing stage yet.

Cannabis does show promise and I still recommend it as an adjuvant treatment, but please do not forego conventienal treatment. It is likely that any cannabis cure that is proven will entail more than a few blobs of RSO twice a day.

My sister was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in several areas in her bones and several tumors in her liver after only six months since her lumpectomy. She has decided to get treatment at an alternative cancer treatment center in Boca Raton, FL. This doctor charge for services is $7000 per month & also a charge a special biopsy so they can decide with "low level" chemo would be effective on her particular cancer. Also, using hyperbaric oxygen $ vitamins, insulin, etc. I Would like your opinion on this

We are not able to provide personal medical advice on our blog, but MSK advocates integrative or complementary medicine (treatments given in addition to the standard of care to alleviate symptoms and side effects) but does not support alternative medicine (treatment given instead of standard cancer care). If you'd like to learn more about our Integrative Medicine Service, you can go to…. Thank you for your comment.

I was diagnosed with stage 4 non Hodgkin's lymphoma. I was treated at msk with retuxin and bendermustien. I was in remission for 3 month before I noticed a tumor on my hip. A biopsy revealed it had transmutated into a aggressive large B cell lymphoma. I was told I had a month to start r-chops followed by radiation and bone marrow transplant I spoke to someone who followed this path and told me he would not do it again. It caused nerve damage and he found it painfull to just walk. Msk had me go for a test on my heart because the chemo could cause heart damage. This scared me and I looked for any other alternative. I found hemp oil and started taking it within a month the tumor disappeared and though I have had other medical problems some associated with a weakend immune system I have had ct scans and MRI and doctors can no longer find active lymphoma. I applaud MSK for allowing this discussion that disagrees with their opinion on many subjects . By the way it is now 3 years since I was told I had a month to decide on chemo and am recovering from my other health problems nicely. MSK saved my life with my original chemo. I also appreciate they gave me the least dangerous treatment with the idea it would be sufficient but I wish the research would be done into the benefits of hemp oil

The only reason someone wouldn't want natural cures to me would be that the FDA would loose a lot of money. I myself believe there are cures for cancer and the FDA would go broke if they got out. God had every thing in the garden of Eden to prevent all sicknesses.

my husband has been diagnosed with lung cancer which has metacized to kidney & brain...after 1 round of chemo dr a week later in hospital dr has said too weak for 2 round and need to plan on comfort/pain plan...if he gets.stronger could be placed back on chemo or immunology...are dr just runnin us off or possible for him to get stronger???

Ruby, we're sorry to hear about your husband. We recommend you speak with his doctors about what treatment is best for him, including whether immunotherapy might be appropriate. If you'd like to find out about arranging a consultation with a doctor at MSK, you can call 800-525-2225 or go to for more information on making an appointment. Thank you for your comment.

Do you know anything about BIRM ? it is a product from Ecuador which contains Dulcamara. Can it be used with other herbal supplements?

Dear Erika, we sent your inquiry to MSK pharmacist and herbalist K. Simon Yeung and he responded:

"We are familiar with BIRM, which stands for "Biological Immune Response Modulator" and is an extract of Solanum Dulcamara. Early laboratory research suggests that it may suppress hormone-sensitive prostate cancer cells. Alkaloids isolated from this plant may also inhibit the growth of E. coli. However, we are not aware of any large scale clinical studies conducted to evaluate the effects of this product. Please follow up with your personal physician who can comment on whether this product is safe or useful for you by itself or in combination with other supplements. Thank you for reaching out to us."

Deep thanks for your devotion to helping others. Your drive to study and heal is SO appreciated and honorable. The "natural" healing industry is very lucrative and dangerous to the vulnerable people. It is disturbing to me that the speculative psuedoscientific claims made by "alternative" practitioners will not expose their claims to public scrutiny. Their scripted claims are dangerous. Please keep advancing science.

Re: Natural Cancer cures... I have heard so many conflicting stories about raising your Alkalinity ... What DOES this help?? Also, what about natural cures like: Pau D'Arco, (which has been mentioned in the "American Cancer Society" pages) and what about others like Sour Sop?? Also, what about some claims that doing a complete body detoxification with herbs??

Dear Mystisch, we sent your questions to Simon Yeung, the MSK pharmacist in charge of our "About Herbs" database (which can be found here: www.mskcc.orb/aboutherbs ) and he responded:

"Alkalinity: The blood in a healthy human is slightly alkaline and laboratory studies suggest that cancer cells tend to thrive in an acidic environment. These led some people to believe that increasing alkalinity in the body through diet can help maintain health and limit cancer growth. However, the body’s pH is self-regulated and cannot be changed by diet alone.

Pau D'Arco and Sour Sop: Preliminary lab studies indicate that Pau D'Arco ( and Soursop ( extracts have anticancer activities. However, these products have not been investigated in large scale clinical trials. Their benefits and side effects as treatments for cancer remain unclear.

Detoxification with herbs: Some alternative medicine practitioners advocate use of herbs to detoxify the body. This is based on traditional medicine theory that diseases are caused by the accumulation of toxins, which need to be purged to relieve symptoms and to maintain health. The herbs used typically have laxative, diuretic, or sweat-promoting effects. Inappropriate use can be dangerous and may cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Most physicians agree that detoxification is not necessary and advise against such practices."

We hope this information is helpful. Thank you for reaching out to us.

Very disturbing. I was feeling normal and well when all of sudden I day I was constipated and at the same time difficult to urinate. I wasted no time consulting my doctor who immediately sent me within in a week or so sent me for 3 different ultra sounds and a blood test. Now, A
according to the test results he said that I may have stage 3 ovarian cancer. However, to be certain he has passed me on to further medical tests ...MRI & tissue tests, to find out for sure at what stage the growth is at. He said the only confirmation is to go through this process and then begin treatment accordingly. Could you please give me your take on my devastating position which is causing me an awful lot of mental and emotional turmoil. Thanking you in anticipation of your reply.

Dear Jean, we are sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Learn more about how ovarian cancer is staged ( and treated ( by clicking on the links. If you would like to make an appointment with one of our specialists to discuss your treatment options and next steps in your care, please call our Physician Referral Service at 800-525-2225.

We understand that emotional and psychological impact that cancer diagnosis and treatment can have, and we offer a range of support programs and counseling for people who are treated at MSK. If you are not an MSK patient and are seeking support resources, CancerCare is a good organization to contact. In fact, they have a support group for women with ovarian cancer that begins on June 1:…

We hope this information is useful. Thank you for reaching out to us.

My young daughter has had a second relapse with Neuroblastoma and we are out of curative options. We are likely to start MIBG therapy to slow progression. There is an option to do this with Topotecan as a radio sensitiser. For many years I have avoided any herbal supplements including cannabis oil because of lack of evidence and my concern about drug-herb interaction. However, now that we are out of curative approaches in traditional medicine, I am looking at our options - this is merely an act of desperation, and not based on any rational decision making. Do you know whether any herbal treatments can have a radiosensitising impact (or inhibition) and can you see any risks of the use of herbal treatments alongside systemic radiation treatment like MIBG therapy?

Dear David, we are very sorry to hear about your daughter's relapse. We sent your question to pharmacist and herbalist Simon Yeung of MSK's Integrative Medicine Service. He responded:

"Some botanical constituents have radiosensitizing effects, but they have not been shown to be effective substitutes for topotecan in MIBG combination therapy. Taking herbal supplements when undergoing radiation therapy may increase the risk of peripheral damage or reduce the effectiveness of treatment. Therefore, we generally do not recommend using herbal supplements during cancer treatment unless we clearly understand their risks and benefits."

Please follow up with your daughter's oncologist if you have additional questions. Thank you for reaching out to us.

Hello. I've gone through many articles on testimonials and claims that people beat cancer with natural therapies. But, what really intrigued me was how in each one of these articles, they all state that the body naturally recognizes these cancer cells and eradicates them. When something "wrong" happens occurs to the body, then this is when someone has cancer. Can you please share your thoughts on this?

Dear James, we recommend that you check out the following resources if you are interested in learning about how cancer arises:

American Cancer Society:

National Cancer Institute:

You may also be interested in learning more about immunotherapy, which used the body's own immune system to fight cancer:…

Thank you for reaching out to us.

My daughter was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Sep 13. Immediately she underwent left salpingo oophorectomy and exploratory laparotomy. She was treated with 4 cycles of BEP and 2 cycles of carboplatin/paclitaxel. She recurred in 2014 with 2 tumors in abdominal wall, which were removed surgically. Subsequently she was treated with 12 biweekly cycles of Folfox/Avastin chemo.
In Dec 2015 it metasticized to her lungs and now to her rib bones. She has been treated with Docitaxel followed by Iphosfamide and now with Folfiri/Avastin without much improvement in tumor markers so far. She is also currently undergoing acupuncture and taking traditional chinese herb medicine. Under the circumstance is it advisable now to just continue with acupuncture or go for immunotherapy in combination with acupuncture.

We are sorry to hear about your daughter's diagnosis. While acupuncture has been found to help relieve certain side effects of cancer and treatment, it's important to know that taking herbs during treatment may not be recommended. Certain herbs and supplements may make treatment less effective or have negative interactions with certain medicines like chemotherapy.

She should discuss anything she's taking with her oncologist to make sure they are safe for her particular circumstances. We also recommend that she follow up with her doctor to discuss the most appropriate next steps in her treatment plan.

To learn more about herb/drug interactions, please read see the following resources:

Frequently Asked Questions (about herbs, botanicals, and other products):…

Blog post:…

Video: Herb/Drug Interactions in Cancer Care:

Thank you for reaching out to us.

My mother has metastatic sarcoma I was wondering if hyperbaric oxygen therapy would be beneficial in shrinking her tumors

Lisa, thank you for reaching out.

MSK advocates integrative or complementary medicine (treatments given in addition to the standard of care to alleviate symptoms and side effects) but does not support alternative medicine (treatment given instead of standard cancer care). Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has not been demonstrated to be more effective than conventional treatments for sarcoma.

If you'd like to learn more about our Integrative Medicine Service, you can go to…

In addition, you canlearn more about treatment of sarcoma at Memorial Sloan Kettering here:

Thank you for your comment.

My husband has had stage 4 prostate cancer with mets to the bones since 2009. He was on ADT with Lupron in combination with various other meds for 2 years, then it failed. However he has been ingesting marijuana oil during this whole time. He is toxic using zytiga, although it works, his liver enzymes lwent to 8x ULN. So he stopped it. Now he has been using enzalutamide (also with eligard) for more than a year, but that has also failed. Currently he is on enzalutamide, Eligard, and chemotherapy with Docitaxel. Which has lowered his PSA. He ingests marijuana oil 3-4 times a day, along with the above. After 7 years in stage IV, the cancer has NOT spread to any soft tissue, liver, lungs, pancreas, other soft tissue organs, and we believe that the cannabis oil is responsible for the inhibition of that spread to the soft tissue. So regardless of the lack of research, we are doing our own research, and it is helping keep the spread down. BUT... I need to know ( yes I know that some of these herbs make chemo less effective) whether Taxotere is one of the drugs affected by combining with any of the following alternative herbs. He takes chaga, essiac and cannabis oil. Along with Enzalutamide, eligard, and now taxotere.

Thanks for any SPECIFIC information on whether taxotere, is inhibited by chaga, essiac and enzalutamide.. All his liver enzymes are in the low normal range, as is his alk phos, bili, and now even the PSA (2.1) He is 65, African American with a virulent strain which, untreated, doubles in one month...

Thank you

Hi Darlene, we recommend that your husband discuss any herbs he is taking with his healthcare team.

You may also want to refer to our About Herbs website, which contains some information about drug interactions. You can find it at

Thank you for your comment.

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