Receiving a cancer diagnosis is, unfortunately, relatively common for Americans. The National Cancer Institute reports that approximately 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Cancer is also among the leading causes of death worldwide with 19.3 million new cases in 2020 alone, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
But there is good news. Traditional treatments for cancer — such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — have never been more effective. Medicine has also made significant strides in prevention and early detection, meaning cancer survival rates are higher than ever. In fact, the National Cancer Institute projects that there will be 22.2 million cancer survivors in the U.S. by 2030.
Whether you’re focused on successful treatment after a cancer diagnosis or preventing cancer altogether, there are a lot of alleged cancer “cures” out there that won’t help you with either goal. In fact, some of these alternative treatments can cause harm and interfere with mainstream cancer treatments.
“There is no magic supplement that cures cancer,” said Charissa Williams, Advanced Practice Clinician at ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center.
The “miracle” cancer cures are known as alternative therapies and are used as a substitute for conventional care. They’re scientifically unproven and especially problematic in oncology because delaying traditional treatment reduces the chances of remission and cure.
This is why it’s especially important to differentiate between alternative and complementary therapies. While alternative cancer treatments can be harmful, complementary therapies can be helpful when used in conjunction with traditional cancer treatment. They don’t provide a cure, but they can help to alleviate symptoms and contribute to overall wellness.
“Complementary therapies are used to help control symptoms, enhance well-being and contribute to overall patient health,” said Williams. “They are typically recognized as safe and proven to be effective.”
Wondering which treatments have merit, and which don’t? Here’s what you need to know.
A poor diet and lack of exercise are major factors in your risk of developing cancer. At least 18% of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. are related to body weight, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption and poor nutrition, according to the World Cancer Research Fund.
“The most effective strategy for cancer prevention is lifestyle modification,” said Williams.
“This includes maintaining a healthy body weight, getting 150 minutes of exercise per week and consuming a diet primarily focused on plants.”
The “anti-cancer diet” isn’t a single miracle food, but rather a healthy balance. Follow these guidelines to establish a diet that will not only keep you feeling good, but also help reduce your risk of a number of chronic illnesses:
- Eat foods rich in whole grains and fiber. Choose whole-grain pastas, breads and rice.
- Eat a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and beans.
- Limit your consumption of red meat and processed meats like bacon, sausage and lunchmeat. Ideally, you should eat less than 12 oz. of these types of meat each week.
- Limit the amount of processed foods that you eat. Soda, commercial baked goods, chips and other processed foods are high in fats, starches and sugar.
- Don’t smoke.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Keep up with routine health care and cancer screenings.
- Aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. Here are some great tips for squeezing workouts into a busy schedule.
As you can see, preventing cancer with a healthy lifestyle is pretty straightforward. It’s eating the foods you know are healthy, and avoiding the foods and habits that are not.
Avoid diets that require an overabundance of a certain nutrient. They are not effective at treating or preventing cancer, despite what followers may say. One such example is the alkaline diet. Based on studies that show cancer cells can’t survive in a low-acid, or alkaline, environment, according to WebMD’s Cancer Center, people follow the alkaline diet in an attempt to lower their body’s acid level and keep cancer cells from growing. In truth, the food you eat doesn’t affect the acidity of your blood. As a result, following this diet simply deprives your body of the nutrients it needs to maintain good health.
“Although diet has been found to play a large role in cancer prevention, dietary supplements have not,” explained Williams.
Overall research shows that supplements don’t protect against cancer. To get the maximum cancer-prevention benefits from food, you should be meeting your nutritional needs through your diet, not with supplements.
Supplements can play a role as complementary cancer therapies, though. Some providers use them to help mitigate side effects of cancer treatment and potentially reduce the risk of recurrence in the future.
“Supplements should be chosen based on individual need and type of cancer,” said Williams. “I would recommend meeting with a qualified health professional to help guide supplement choices.”
Because some supplements can do more harm than good, basing your decision on expert clinical advice is critical. For example, antioxidant supplements reduce the efficacy of radiation therapy and some chemotherapy drugs, turmeric reduces the efficacy of the drug tamoxifen for breast cancer patients, and fish oil may reduce how well platinum-based chemotherapy works.
The same goes for using supplements for prevention. Supplemental beta carotene, for example, may actually increase the risk of developing lung cancer in smokers. Talk to your provider before you add any supplements to your diet to ensure you’re helping your body, rather than unknowingly hurting it.
Cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical extracted from cannabis plants, is sometimes touted as a miracle drug. CBD products typically don’t contain THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high. CBD is usually sold as an oil, but you can also find it as an extract, oil-based capsule and infused with foods, drinks and beauty products.
Some people claim that it can destroy or shrink cancer tumors, as well as cure diabetes, arthritis, migraines, infections and other diseases. But the truth is that the benefits of CBD are limited, especially for cancer patients.
Scientists are currently studying whether CBD can relieve some of the side effects of cancer and cancer treatments, but at this point, no large-scale studies have shown CBD to have benefits for cancer treatment. However, the American Society of Clinical Oncology says a number of cancer patients found relief from nausea, vomiting, depression and other side effects of their treatment by using CBD.
The Mayo Clinic reports some risks to using CBD. It can cause dry mouth, diarrhea, reduced appetite, drowsiness and fatigue. It can also interact with other medications, including blood thinners. If you’re considering CBD to alleviate some of the side effects of your cancer treatment, talk to your provider first.
Wellness routines can make a huge difference in anyone’s life, whether you’re physically healthy or in the middle of your cancer journey. Music therapy, meditation, stress management and yoga are all useful complementary therapies during and after cancer treatment.
Studies show that meditation in particular is effective for a range of health conditions and helps with many of the side effects of cancer treatments, such as pain, anxiety and depression.
Williams noted that meditation and yoga improve quality of life, especially for breast cancer patients.
“We are lucky enough to have a meditation room right here at ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center,” said Williams. “It is located at the far end of the front lobby and available for patients, family members and staff to use anytime they would like!”
The great thing about meditation is that it can be done nearly anywhere, at almost any time. It takes just four steps to start feeling the immediate benefits of calming your mind and focusing on the present:
- Find a quiet place with few distractions.
- Take a comfortable position. This may be sitting, lying down or even walking.
- Focus your attention on one positive thought, such as “I choose to have a good day.” If you’re having a hard time keeping your mind on one thought, focus on your breath and breathing deeply.
- If you’re interrupted by external distractions or intrusive thoughts, acknowledge them and then let them go without judging yourself.
There’s no right way to meditate or one wellness routine that’s better than others. What’s important is finding the technique that makes you feel good and keeps you focused on the present.
If you’re researching complementary cancer treatments or alternative therapies, Williams recommends asking yourself these two questions before going any further:
- Is it safe?
Consider whether the therapy will interact with your other cancer treatment or medications, any potential risks of the supplement, and its quality. Supplements, CBD and other alternative treatments are known to have quality control issues, so you’re not always guaranteed to get what the packaging promises.
- How likely is it to be effective?
Do your research. There are a fair amount of supplements that have proven success fighting off cancer cells in animals, but have not undergone human clinical trials. The same goes for many of the alternative treatments for cancer.
Before trying anything new, talk with your doctor about integrating it into your care plan. Each person’s cancer journey is different, and the primary and complementary therapies will differ from one person to the next.
“I recommend that all patients be open with their provider regarding what natural products they are using,” said Williams. “This allows the practitioner to evaluate for interactions and watch for any possible adverse effects. If a patient is pursuing any alternative treatment methods that could inhibit the speed or effectiveness of their journey to recovery, it is important to discuss those risks and consider eliminating that natural product.”
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, ThedaCare offers a variety of traditional treatments and complementary therapies to support you on the road to recovery.