Understanding Cancer, Part 5/5: Alternative Cancer Treatments

As I mentioned in Part 4, There are a mass of alternative treatments, some better known that others. In this final part to this series on cancer, we’ll explore the most popular alternative cancer treatments, as well as how we can think about them.

The Gerson Therapy

The Gerson Therapy promotes a low salt diet with the addition of large quantities of raw vegetable and fruit juices, along with supplements of potassium, iodine, thyroid hormone, pancreatic enzymes and coffee enemas. Of all the alternative therapies I know of, this has the most actual evidence to back up its claims of efficacy.

One paper published by the Gerson Institute themselves demonstrates impressive survival statistics in patients with melanoma. Another more recent study of 6 patients with terminal cancer demonstrates that, with the Gerson Therapy, they lived longer than would be expected.

Despite the problems with conflict of interest, bias, and low sample size in these two studies, they’re better than the complete lack of data that almost every other alternative treatment method has. Max Gerson himself published a book recording his experience with 50 patients (Gerson M. A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases. 3rd ed.San Diego, Calif: Gerson Institute; 2002.)  A review of his cases reveals that 31 of the cases never had biopsies, so it’s possible that they may not have had any cancer at all, six had benign lesions (not cancer), eight had surgery which was almost definitely curative, and two had progressive cancer, which leaves four who seemed to have a good response to therapy. It’s unclear what parts of the therapy are useful or necessary. Is it the juicing, the supplements, the coffee enemas, or are all of them necessary for effective treament?

The Budwig Diet

The Budwig Diet is comprised of large amounts of flaxseed oil and cottage cheese, in addition to fruits, vegetables, and juices with prohibitions on processed foods, meats and sugar. Flaxseed oil has been shown to reduce cancer cell growth in prostate cancer and to improve response to trastuzumab, a targeted cancer drug, in breast cancer. There are no studies that I know that demonstrate any anti-cancer benefits of cottage cheese. Also, there is no strong data to suggest that the Budwig Diet alone can cure cancer.


Turmeric and its active component, curcumin, have been widely studied, and it does seem to have some anti-cancer properties. A small study in advanced stage pancreatic cancer patients found some antitumor activity in 10% of patients with almost no side effects. Also, combinations of conventional chemotherapy with curcumin have been shown to be well-tolerated and improve treatment response in breast and pancreatic cancer.  Curcumin has several ongoing Phase II and III trials and will most likely become a conventional anti-tumor agent once testing is completed.

Alkaline Water and Alkaline Diets

Alkaline water and alkaline diets are promoted with the idea that cancers thrive in acidic environments and, by manipulating the pH of the body, cancers can be destroyed. Just like many alternative cancer treatments, there is an element of truth to this belief. Tumors are generally acidic environments. This is because cancers are metabolically active and often outstrip their oxygen supply, which leads to anaerobic respiration and acidification of the tumor microenvironment. However, this does not mean that cancers thrive in acidic environments; they merely tolerate it and cancer cells function optimally in the same pH range as normal cells.

Also, the body has many redundant systems to keep the blood and tissues within a fairly tight pH range and, while alkaline water and certain foods can change the pH of urine and saliva, blood and tissue pH cannot be changed to any meaningful degree with diet or alkaline water.  In fact, if the pH is somehow changed outside the normal range, it becomes a serious medical problem that can lead to death.

Sonodynamic Therapy

Sonodynamic therapy has been under active investigation for the past decade; currently, a large number of animal studies are underway to determine an optimal protocol to use in human trials. The mechanism is unclear but the ultrasonic cavitation bubbles in the tissue and fluid are thought to create reactive oxygen molecules that kill cancer, much like radiation therapy. There have been no studies in humans so far but they are most likely forthcoming in the next several years, as animal studies mature. There are several alternative cancer clinics in Mexico that supposedly offer sonodynamic therapy; it’s unclear what protocol or sensitizer agents they use and if their treatments are effective because they haven’t published or released their results for review.

Regional Or Whole Body Hypothermia

Regional or whole body hyperthermia is an old therapy that has recently had a recent renaissance in interest.  Back in the 1950s to the 1980s, there was widespread interest in hyperthermia. Over 10,000 research papers and 700 clinical trials were performed on this modality.  For a time, every major cancer center in the United States and Europe were investigating hypothermia as a cancer treatment. There were declarations that hyperthermia would be the fourth modality in cancer treatment next to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

But why is it that hyperthermia is no longer used at mainstream cancer treatment centers? In short, because it doesn’t work and also because treatment delivery is labor intensive and inexact.  However, there is a recent resurgence of interest in hyperthermia as a combination therapy with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In that role, it may prove to be of some benefit.  Phase III trials as an adjuvant treatment have not been performed and its effectiveness is widely questioned based on fairly exhaustive research that has been conducted on it in the past.

Rigvir And Oncolytic Viruses

Rigvir and oncolytic viruses are often espoused by alternative treatment centers. Rigvir is an old oncolytic virus developed in Latvia in the 1960s. There is data to suggest that it has some anti-cancer effects in selected tumors.  But the idea that a therapy unavailable in the United States is somehow better than what’s available in the U.S. is not supported by the data. Rigvir likely has activity in melanoma but it’s unclear if it’s better or worse than current melanoma treatments. Also, there are many other newer and possibly more effective oncolytic viruses currently under development and testing.

Vitamin C

Likely based on the fact that many antioxidants have been shown to be associated with decreased cancer risk, people have turned to high dose vitamin C as a cancer treatment—vitamin C being an antioxidant. Even Linus Pauling, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, believed that high dose vitamin C was protective. However, actual studies have not carried this theory through. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, perhaps the most respected of all medical journals, found no difference in randomized, double-blind trial of high dose oral vitamin C in late-stage cancer patients.

Naturally, the next thing to try was to give even higher doses intravenously. There is one paper, basically, a case report, that describes three patients with apparent treatment effect from intravenous vitamin C. Unless the patient has renal insufficiency or glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, intravenous vitamin C is remarkably safe. However, care should be taken if the patient wishes to use vitamin C in conjunction with conventional therapy because many conventional therapies such as radiation therapy and many chemotherapeutic agents rely on the formation of reactive oxygen intermediates to kill the cancer cells.


Amygdalin, otherwise known as laetrile and vitamin B17, is surprisingly still a commonly espoused anticancer drug. This compound was extensively studied in the past and found to be unequivocally toxic and ineffective. The fact that this is still being promoted and that some people call it a vitamin—which it is absolutely not—is criminal.

Do Your Research

There are hundreds of other alternative cancer treatments and to go through them all would require me to write a book. The above treatments are, I believe, the most commonly espoused and also some of the possibly effective.

A good resource to research herbs and alternative treatments has been put together by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I found their site to be factual, in-depth, and well researched.

When researching cancer treatments, it’s important to remember a few key things:

  • Saying a treatment works in cancer cells means essentially nothing.
  • Saying a treatment works in animal tumor models means almost nothing.
  • Saying a treatment worked in a few people in a case report means very little.
  • Saying a treatment worked in a Phase I or II trial means maybe it works.
  • Once a treatment works in Phase III trials, it’s no longer considered alternative or experimental treatment; it then becomes an actual treatment.

So what’s the conclusion?

Some of these alternative treatments are things that have been proven to be ineffective and sometimes toxic. These should be avoided at all times.

Some of these are treatments that are currently undergoing evaluation and are possibly helpful or possibly harmful. These should be approached with caution.

Some of these are possibly helpful and are not known to have dangerous side effects.

Given that some of these alternative treatments may possibly have some curative properties, what should a cancer patient do? I’ve often asked myself the same question and wondered: What would I do if if I were diagnosed with cancer? Would I use alternative treatments? Would I undergo conventional therapy? Would I do a combination of both?

It depends on the type and stage of cancer.  As we discussed in Part I of this series, not all cancers are the same. Some are very indolent, don’t many problems, and are highly curable. Others are very aggressive and rarely cured. Cancers in which conventional treatments are known to have a high cure rate should absolutely be treated with conventional treatment. When conventional treatments are known to be highly successful, why gamble with your life?

Unfortunately, what I’ve seen many times in my practice are patients who choose to abandon conventional therapy for their highly curable cancers, in order to try alternative therapies. Unfortunately, they’ve come back months later, when the cancer was far more advanced and much harder to treat. Don’t make the same mistake.

If your cancer has a dismal cure rate and severe side effects with conventional treatment, I might be leaning towards alternative therapy because at that point, there is very little to lose by trying alternative treatments. Conventional therapies are proven to fail most of the time in those cases.

The vast majority of cancers fall somewhere in between. In those cases, a reasonable strategy might be conventional therapy with the addition of alternative therapies that seem the most beneficial and without risk. For example: juicing fruits and vegetables, flaxseed oil, turmeric, and vitamin C. Also, it would be wise to maximize the things that are proven to help reduce recurrence or carcinogenesis: exercise, sleep, stress reduction, and vitamin D.

Part 1: Cancer — What is it?

Part 2: What Causes Cancer?

Part 3: Conventional Methods Of Treating Cancer

Part 4: Busting Myths About A Miracle Cure For Cancer

Part 5: Alternative Cancer Treatments

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Steve Lee, MD, PhD

Dr. Lee is a surgical oncologist and associate professor at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and currently serves as Vice Chairman of the Head and Neck Surgery Department and co-director of the Center for Skull Base Surgery. He lives in Redlands, CA with his wife and two daughters and enjoys dragging them out into the great outdoors every chance he gets.

1 Comment
  1. Thank you, this is very informative, I had both vocal cords removed, as well as much of my voice box, and some lymph nodes, the DR. Made a vocal cord from the epiglottis I believe.it’s been 8 years cancer free,Dr Shindler and his team we’re amazing, I started treatments at a smaller hospital, it soon became a nightmare.it was then I ended up at OHSU and Dr Shindler.

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