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Cancer Quackery: The Persistent Popularity of Useless, Irrational 'Alternative' Treatments

Cancer Quackery: The Persistent Popularity of Useless, Irrational 'Alternative' Treatments

At a time when many readily believe that vaccines cause autism, or that government scientists created AIDS as a weapon of black genocide, it is not surprising that medical quackery, especially cancer quackery, remains a flourishing and lucrative business throughout the developed world. This review provides a brief recap of its history and an overview of the various types of unproven or disproved cancer therapies popular now in the United States and elsewhere.

One of the earliest papers published by one of us (BRC) was entitled “After Laetrile, What?”[1] On looking it over again, it is apparent that this 1982 article could have been written today, except that laetrile proved not transient, but rather a seemingly permanent addition to a very large field. Known also as amygdalin and “vitamin B17” (and not an actual vitamin), laetrile was subjected to 20 years of animal studies, followed by a national clinical trial of 175 patients. Results indicated that the agent had no anticancer effects.[2]

Although banned decades ago by the US Food and Drug administration (FDA) and quiescent for a while, laetrile resurfaced as public Internet use became increasingly common. Today, in addition to multiple websites that sell the product, Amazon.com has 209 entries for laetrile in every conceivable form, including vitamin B17 500-mg tablets, organic raw apricot kernels, amygdalin cream, as well as 182 book entries, such as the recent title World Without Cancer: The Story of Vitamin B17 Intravenous laetrile also is available via the Internet and across the Southern US border, in both cases bypassing legal injunctions.

Laetrile was and remains only one among many bogus cancer “treatments” popular from the 1980s on. In the 80s, therapies in vogue included metabolic regimens, special diets, high-dose vitamin and mineral supplements, mental imagery applied with curative intent, and the like.[3] Over the past few decades, purification regimens, oxygen therapies, radio and other electrical frequencies, human and divine forces, and more have come to the fore.

In addition to the expansion of what was often termed “unorthodox” medicine into a vast, open, and readily available store of unproven and disproved therapies, possibly the most significant shift in the past 20-some years has been its transformation from an essentially underground phenomenon—clandestine knowledge shared by a patient and an alternative practitioner—to a readily accessible storehouse of information and products. This was facilitated by the rise of the Internet, which now produces close to 21 million results in response to a search on “alternative cancer.” Two popular sites that come up in such a search, CancerTutor.com and Alternative-Cancer.net, are representative examples of sites that provide and/or sell “advice” on a range of therapies purported to cure cancer without mainstream treatment. Not all such sites sell bogus treatments. Some debunk, like QuackWatch.org; others actually purvey information on “complementary” (adjunctive) therapies, using the term inappropriately and incorrectly.

The terminology applied to therapies that are outside the realm of mainstream medicine varies widely and has evolved over time. Terms like “unorthodox,” “unconventional,” and “questionable” were largely replaced a few decades ago by “alternative medicine” as an umbrella term for all such treatments.[4] Since then, “alternative medicine” has given way to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) as the most common descriptor.[5] Exemplifying this shift, the National Institutes of Health’s “Office of Alternative Medicine” was renamed the “National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine” (NCCAM) in 1999.

Today, the term “CAM” encompasses a heterogeneous array of treatments, some unproven or disproved alternatives, and others, rational and evidence-based, that are supported for use as adjunctive, complementary or integrative therapies for symptom control. An important distinction must be made between these two unrelated categories.[5] Complementary therapies are those used in addition to conventional care. Many such therapies, such as acupuncture treatment, massage therapy, and music therapy, among others, have been shown to be safe and effective as adjunctive treatments for managing pain, nausea, stress, and many other symptoms, and for supporting patient well-being in general. Their growing use in mainstream cancer settings is now known as “integrative oncology.”

Alternative therapies such as laetrile, on the other hand, are often promoted for use in lieu of mainstream cancer care. Typically, these are accompanied by negative statements about mainstream cancer care, such as “cut poison burn,”[6] and “Little or no progress in the treatment of adult cancers has been made. A man or woman who gets prostate or breast cancer today will live as long as the person who developed these same cancers in 1920. Nothing we've done in a century has substantially reduced deaths.”[7] [emphasis in original]

Despite their extensive promotion on the Internet and through other media, unconventional agents for cancer rarely are subjected to proper study.[8] Yet even in the absence of supportive data, the incidence of use is high. It is estimated that more than 50% of cancer patients will adopt some form of “unproven” or “unorthodox” therapy.[9,10] The promotion of unproven or disproved cancer “treatments” instead of mainstream therapy is quackery. The examples below reflect the variety of the numerous questionable approaches promoted to cancer patients. They are grouped by descriptive category titles.

Unproven Oral Treatments


Dietary supplements and herbal remedies, typically unstudied or disproved, are commonly used by cancer patients. One enduring herbal remedy is Essiac, also marketed as Flor-Essence. Initially used by a Native American healer from South-West Canada, a nurse named Ren Caisse popularized the herbal formulation as a cancer treatment in the 1920s. She named the remedy Essiac, her last name spelled backwards.

Initially comprising four herbs, Indian rhubarb (Rheum palmatum), sheepshead sorrel (Rumexacetosa), slippery elm (Ulmusfulva), and burdock root (Arctiumlappa), other herbs were added over the years by various dietary supplement manufacturers. Today there are several different Essiac preparations available online and in health food stores, in tea, pill, and liquid form. (A search on Amazon.com brings up hundreds of entries.) In general, there is a lack of both safety and efficacy data for Essiac and Essiac formulations, and no clinical evidence supports its use.[11-13]


This chemical formulation, originally known as Entelev, was developed in 1936 by chemist James Sheridan, who was inspired by a dream that it would cure cancer. Sold under many names, including CanCell, Cantron, and Protocel, this dark brown liquid usually contains nitric acid, sodium sulfite, potassium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and catechol. The theory behind this remedy is that CanCell balances the vibrational energy of cancer cells, causing them to self-digest and be expelled from the body. A related explanation is that catechol “inhibits cancer cell respiration, thus causing the cells to drop below their ability to survive, and allowing the body to dispose of them in the normal way dead cells are disposed of.”[14]

There is no scientific basis for such claims.[15,16] The product has been purported to treat a variety of chronic diseases in addition to cancer, including HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease. Animal studies conducted by the National Cancer Institute between 1978 and 1991 found no evidence of anticancer activity. The FDA obtained an injunction in 1989 making it illegal to distribute CanCell across state lines.[17]

Shark cartilage

Interest in this biologic product developed in the 1950s when surgeon John Prudden began experimenting with medical applications for animal cartilage. He claimed that it reduced the size of tumors by close to half in the patients in whom he tested it.[18] Now available in powdered and liquid form, shark cartilage is purported to combat tumors via antiangiogenic activity. While laboratory studies in vitro and in animal models have found antiangiogenic and antitumor effects from shark cartilage extracts,[19-21] the results of clinical studies have not been promising.[22]

A recent study of a purified shark cartilage extract called Neovastat failed to improve survival in patients with non–small-cell lung cancer.[23] The bioavailability of these extracts when taken orally is unclear, as the active proteins are too large to be absorbed intact and may not reach tumors without first being decomposed by the digestive system. Regardless, since the late 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has intervened to prevent at least three companies from making unsubstantiated claims of efficacy in their marketing of shark cartilage products.[24]


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