The Truth behind Three Natural Cancer “Cures”

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Cannabis oil is often heralded as an alternative cure for cancer

Cannabis oil is often heralded as a treatment for cancer and other diseases, but there’s no science to support these claims.

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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Laetrile

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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Comments

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Dear David, complementary therapies, such as those offered through MSK’s Integrative Medicine Service, are wellness therapies that are designed to work together with traditional medical treatments. Through our research — and years of working with cancer patients — we know that these therapies can often help in controlling cancer-related symptoms and side effects while simultaneously rebuilding physical and emotional strength. To learn more about the types of complementary therapies we offer, please visit https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/treatments/symptom-management/integra…. Thank you for your comment.

I had two types of skin cancer. Do you think my meds caused this. Blood pressure medication and aspirin, plavix or many x-rays .

We are sorry to hear about your diagnoses, but are unable to determine what exactly caused your disease. We recommend that you follow up with your physician to discuss your concerns. To learn more about risk factors for the various types of skin cancer, please visit https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/types/skin. Thank you for reaching out to us.

I would like to know more about Essaic use in conjunction with CMF chemo treatment for triple negative (slow growing) breast cancer

Husband has stage 3 lung cancer. Going through chemo and radiation. I was told sour honey was some miracle cure??? Cant find anything about this on medical website. Also, what is your take on Black Cumin Seed Oil. Thank you,

Dear Connie, we’re sorry to hear about your husband’s diagnosis. Neither of these things has been shown to cure cancer in human studies. As with any herbal remedies, we recommend you discuss them with your husband’s doctor, because some may have side effects or interactions with medications. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you and your husband.

My friend has breast cancer. She chose not to go the traditional route because it was too close to the muscle wall, and cutting it out with safe margins would have jeopardized her use of the arm, and she was afraid of chemo and radiation treatment. The lump used to be a small, barely noticable bump at the bottom of her breast, but now, after a few years, has even breached the skin. The current treatment she is using is something called a gen pulse machine. I think it shoots a light into the area that is supposed to ohygenate the area. Does she have any chance with this treatment method and what should she do if it gets any worse??

Dear Krekorn, we’re sorry to hear about your friend’s diagnosis. We recommend that she consult with a board-certified oncologist about her treatment. Thank you for your comment.

Is fucoidan a good supplement to treat prostate cancer?

Do you know if any information or studies, current or past, on using DDR3 Prime essential oil for killing cancer cells? Chemo for stomach, liver and, now, lung cancer has made my dad so sick he won't do it anymore. His dr. hasn't given us much of anything else.

Dear Rochelle, we’re sorry to hear that your father isn’t doing well. We don’t have any information about this compound in our About Herbs database. As with any herbs or supplements, we recommend that you discuss them with a doctor before taking them. Best wishes to you and your family.

Dear MSK,

Am a liver transplant recipient for many years now and then was diagnosed with a stage 4 lung cancer recently. After gene testing, we are now being told to take Iressa. Is there any other options we can take?

Dear Pinto, we are sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Unfortunately we not able to offer treatment advice on our blog. We recommend you discuss this with your oncologist. If you’re interested in having a consultation with someone at MSK, you can call 800-525-2225 or go to https://www.mskcc.org/experience/become-patient/appointment for more information on making an appointment. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

What about the ketogenic diet (no grains, no sugar, no starches), because cancer cells thrive on sugar? I've heard very promising things with brain cancer, which makes sense because a keto diet can is used for children with epilepsy. Your thoughts?

Do you have any information or thoughts on the product BIRM which is being studied at the University of Miami regarding it's efficacy for use with prostate cancer ? Thank You

Dear Edward, unfortunately we do not have any information about this product in our About Herbs database (http://www.mskcc.org/aboutherbs). We recommend that you discuss this with your doctor or contact the researchers at the University of Miami for more information. Thank you for your comment.

Is there any other alternative treatment for cancer.? I heard about alkaline water from Balance 7. Does it really work?

Dear Ammy, MSK does not support the use of “alternative” treatments, which are used instead of standard medical treatments for cancer. However, we do support the use of complementary or integrative medicine, which can reduce the side effects of cancer and its treatment and can improve the quality of life for many patients. It’s important to consult with your doctor before using any of these approaches, including herbs, because they may interfere with other treatments, such as chemotherapy. Thank you for your comment.

I am 74 ,had breast lumpectomy surgery 4 weeks ago, no cancer in lymph nodes or surrounding tissue, cancer stage 1. Oncologist recommend pill Arimidex, I have high blood pressure and thyroid, it concerns me about all the side effects ,he said he has had patients to get blood clots from this pill. I have never had hysterectomy and I worry this could cause bleeding and uterus cancer.
What would be the risk of not taking this drug?

Dear Anna, unfortunately we are not able to answer individual medical questions on our blog. We recommend that you discuss your concerns with your surgeon and your medical oncologist. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

Does sugar feed cancer? We keep hearing this over and over.

I am doing research to on alternative therapies because a loved one is trying to use only natural therapies for their cancer. The information here is good and all, but I can't find any primary sources or citations for this or any other post on this cite. If you are trying to advocate for evidence based treatment options then you need to support yourself with scientifically sound references. This blog was less than helpful because there are not citations to primary sources, so you're on equal footing with all of the sources claiming miracle cures. Please update this post with the sources you used to write it. Thank you.

I’m a firm believer in doing what’s best for the patient. From personal experience, I can tell you that conventionally, scientifically proven therapists are critical to the survival of cancer patients. Chemotherapy, along with surgeries is what saved my life. While marijuana was a great help with nausea, stress and overall piece of mind- it was no substitute for the science behind my remission and I hate to use the word, but “cure”. Life is about balance, make your choices carefully.

I have a friend that has lung cancer that has spread to his liver and brain, his ex wife is someone that thinks that hemp oil will save him, because it can cure everything from acne to cancer, neither she or I have any medical back ground. Myself I have heard about marijuana being used to help with side effects caused by chemo, as far as it being a cure all I can not find any evidence of this. Are there any studies being done at this time? She has also said that it is possible that smoking marijuana could cure lung cancer, My friend has smoked marijuana since before I knew him and that is about 40 years now, one would think that if it could cure cancer, he never should have developed it in the first place.

Dear Albert, we’re sorry to hear about your friend’s diagnosis. There have been no published studies in humans that have shown that marijuana or hemp oil can shrink tumors. Thank you for your comment.

If marijuana cured cancer, don’t you think MSK would convert the Patient Lounge on 15 into the finest grow house on the Eastern Seaboard?

Nice post it's more useful for cancer patients and give for some hopes.Thank you!

I was diagnosed with hormone positive stage 3 breast cancer in July 2015. I had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. I have been looking up on your website several of the supplements and herbs I am currently taking. Two that I am concerned about are green tea and Gnot Weed AKA Resveratrol. I see that green tea increases the oral bioavailability of Tamoxifen increasing the potential for their interactions. I am not on Tamoxifen, but am taking Arimidex which is an anti-Estrogen prescription. Does the same interactions of green tea apply to Arimidex? Also. I see that Knot Weed/Resveratrol should not be taken with hormone sensitive cancer as it may stimulate some types of cancer cells. Should this be eliminated from my daily supplements too? Thank you!

Dear Joan, although we are not in a position to give personalized advice regarding use of supplements, those supplements do cause general concerns. The first is the potential herb-drug interaction. Drugs like tamoxifen are substrates of the CYP enzymes, and are more prone to interacting with botanical products, such as green tea extract and resveratrol, which are known to inhibit these enzymes. Drugs like anastrozole (Arimidex), are not substrates, therefore less likely to interact through this mechanism.

The second concern is the estrogenic activity of herbal products. Theoretically, they can stimulate the growth of hormone-sensitive cancer cells. However, this effect can be dose-related and there are preliminary studies suggesting they also have anticancer properties through other pathways. The effects in humans have yet to be demonstrated in clinical trials. In general, we recommend that patients avoid such products until we know more about their safety.

Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

I personally have been fighting a very aggressive breast cancer since sept 2017. I have been in school for my MH and TND since may of 2017. I love this article from both sides of the fence! Once i have my diploma, i will treat my clients on facts and encourage them to take the most proven route. I will help them on this road in a naturopathic way that will aid and compliment treatments. Ill be looking for other articles like this one!!

I have been diagnosed with breast cancer her2positive DCIS a year after having a cancer tumor removed from my colon without further treatment. I don't believe the two were related, but I am reluctant to do radiation and chemotherapy since these are so toxic to the body and to my immune system. After toxically irradiating tumors, what's to stop more cancer from starting up elsewhere? It seems backwards that our medical industry is not exploring more of the healthful immune boosting therapies and relying solely on powerful (and extremely expensive and dangerous) therapies, just because that's what we ended up with in the U. S. Other countries have much success with alternative treatments. Is it possible that the drug companies have skewed our research and opportunities for treatment away from more natural, immune friendly treatments? And the importance of detoxifying from unhealthy diets, air and water quality, pharmaceuticals, etc? I feel like our whole nation has drunk the cool-aid. There are so many health giving practices that make good sense and are largely ignored (unstudied) by our medical communities (and financed by big pharmaceutical companies who stand to profit from the sickening of America.). Thats a mouthful, but had to make my statement. I'm tired of seeing friends suffer from chemo and radiation, then die. I'm going holistic.

My friend has tumor in her breast which was proved to be cancer free. Is there anything she can do

Dear Mary, we’re glad to hear your friend’s tumor was not cancer. She should discuss with her healthcare team what kind of follow-up care and monitoring that she needs. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to both of you.

I am a current cancer patient.
Whenever I see articles like this, I do agree with the overall disclaimer. Although, I think we all need to be aware that there is a HUGE motivation for natural, easy options for cancer treatment and prevention to NOT work. The pharmaceutical industries is enormous. The CANCER INDUSTRY makes our governments and our professionals loads of money.
I am a critical, self-empowered, informed patient who does both. I combine natural and 'conventional' treatment options.

Please let us look at prevention! The medical system only looks at treating the system and not at all at the actual triggers and WHY you got cancer. Imagine if we put some of this industry into prevention!

I was told by well meaning people to try this persons program,Chris Wark, healing cancer, was wondering what you think?

Dear Sheila, experts at MSK endorse eating a healthy diet after a cancer diagnosis, but a diet alone cannot substitute for medical treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and other treatments like targeted therapies and immunotherapies. We recommend that you refer to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) for evidence-based guidelines in the treatment of all kinds of cancer. https://www.nccn.org/

Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you.

I was recently diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. Did lumpectomy and node excision - nodes were negatives and clear margins were achieved. Oncologist is still recommending chemo. Isn't this an aggressive recommendation? What do is Dr. Yeung's view of using a Castor oil pack with DSMO to treat the breast instead of radiation and chemo? I'm currently leaning toward natural treatments, especially since my cancer is stage 1. Please advise. Thank you.

Dear Ginny, there is no scientific evidence that either of these things is effective against cancer. We recommend you discuss adjuvant (follow-up) treatment with your medical team. You may also want to refer to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines for stage I breast cancer. You can find those here: https://www.nccn.org/patients/guidelines/stage_i_ii_breast/index.html

Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

My Dad is scheduled to have a laryngectomy and throat dissection at MSK-CC for a re-occurrence of throat cancer. He had radiation/chemo in 2013 from another institution but that is not an option this time. My question is regarding his ability to heal after all the radiation damage already in place. I will follow up and ask his surgeon about this option as well but wondered if MSK offers hyperbaric therapy to aid in the healing process?

Dear Sabrina, we’re sorry to hear about your dad’s diagnosis. As you mentioned, it’s best to discuss any medical treatments with his doctors and nurses. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to both of you.

Dr. Sanchez’s paper on “Anticancer mechanisms of cannabinoids” is an interesting read and does make many claims to cannabinoids effects on animal models. Those findings are very interesting and encouraging that cannabinoids could potentially be used in human cancer therapies. However, animal models don’t always translate to a human model. In fact, in the paper Sanchez and the other authors go on to say that the few studies investigating the antitumor activities of THC in humans have shown that it can stimulate cancer cell proliferation and interfere with tumor-suppressor role of the immune system. This is exactly the opposite of what a cancer patient would want. Some papers you may be interested in reading that were not conducted in an animal model are “Cannabinoids induce cancer cell proliferation via tumor necrosis factor alpha-converting enzyme (tace/adam17)–mediated transactivation of the epidermal growth factor receptor” by Hart and “Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol enhances breast cancer growth and metastasis by suppression of the antitumor immune response” by McKallip. This by no means should discredit the work scientists have previously done on animal models, but just shows that cannabinoids effect on cancer in humans needs more research. The author of this blog is merely trying to show that aside from the reduction in nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite cancer patients face, there is not enough evidence to purely rely on cannabinoids to treat cancer and has outlined the evidence against it. The many anecdotical stories around natural cancer therapies can often give people hope that they work. However, please consider that their improvement in condition could be a result of something completely unrelated to their natural cancer therapies. Without unsupported evidence, it could be extremely dangerous to follow anecdotal treatments over more mainstream therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, both of which have much more scientific evidence backing them up. I am looking forward to more clinical studies of the effects of THC administration to cancer tumors, as I am as hopeful as you are for more treatment options.

My husband has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. He is currently a patient at MSK and taking Tagrisso. His first scan showed shrinkage in all areas with the main tumor almost completely gone. Recognizing that this is not a cure I've been trying to research what changes we can make to diet and supplements to help his body fight the cancer. I've been reading about curcumin and it's anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Is there any reason I shouldn't liberally add this spice to his diet or take a curcumin supplement? I've also been reading about the benefit of reducing copper to the low point of the normal range. The argument is that all enzymes that a cancer cell can use for angiogenesis depend on copper. Is there any research being done in this area?

Dear Kathy, we recommend that you discuss this with your husband’s medical team. They may be able to consult with one of MSK’s herbs experts and give you more information about this. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you and your husband.

I have informed that there is supplement named Atomic Hemohim, that FDA approved and it Benefits
NK cell activation - An immune cell which is generated in the human bone marrow to destruct harmful substances to the human body. NK cells can eat cancer cells
Cytokine generation improvement - A type of cell playing a central roll in the immune system
Immunity enhancement - Enhances immunity to maintain health
Immune cell activation - Improves human body defense capacity
It is safe or can it be used during chemotherapy treatment?