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.
Oxygen therapies comprise a group of unproven alternatives promoted as cures for cancer and other degenerative diseases, such as HIV/AIDS. In the case of cancer, it is claimed that tumors thrive in oxygen-poor environments, that cancerous tissues can be reoxygenated by a variety of therapeutic means, and that the process of oxygenation destroys the aberrant cells. The justification for this approach appears to stem from the work of Nobel laureate physician Otto Warburg, who discovered in the 1930s that tumor cells use oxygen differently and respire more slowly than normal cells.
These treatments, which typically involve introducing additional oxygen into the body in liquid or pill form, are currently available in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. Oxygen therapy is administered in other ways as well, including intravenously, via colonic delivery of hydrogen peroxide, and by infusion of ozone-treated blood.
There is no scientific evidence to support claims that anaerobic conditions cause cancer, that oxygen is absorbed by the digestive system, or that oxygen treatments have any efficacy in the treatment of disease. Serious adverse effects and at least five fatalities associated with oxygen therapies have been reported.
Energy therapies are premised on the existence of energy fields around the human body. It is believed that these fields can be manipulated to treat disease and restore health. Such manipulations typically are carried out through one of two modalities: by healers using techniques such as “therapeutic touch,” which actually involves no touch, or by the application of electromagnetic energy from special devices. Neither the existence of such energy fields nor the ability to manipulate them for greater health is supported by scientific evidence.
Therapeutic touch is a technique commonly practiced by nurses in the United States and other countries; in this technique, the healer passes his or her hands several inches above a patient’s body to sweep away “blockages” in the free flow of the patient’s “energy.” Known also by several other terms, such as biofield therapy, healing touch, and energy therapy, the technique may provide emotional benefit, but it lacks biological plausibility as a treatment for disease and is unproven. Still, some practitioners claim the ability to treat cancer in this way.
According to HealingTouchInternational.org, one of numerous such organizations, “Healing Touch is a relaxing, nurturing energy therapy...that...works with your energy field to support your natural ability to heal.”
There are many energy healers who sell their one-on-one services to cancer patients. Healers often market themselves as “miracle workers,” capable of healing cancer and other diseases. Such healers also offer long-distance healing, esoteric tutoring, energy clearing, and the like. An Internet site which posits that “Cancer-Healer” therapy is best claims: “No side effects such as hair loss, infections, pain, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, weight loss, mouth-sores and loss of appetite. No damage to normal cells. Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy kill normal cells in addition to cancer cells.” Energy healing training also is available.
The digital age brought computers and technology into the realm of questionable cancer treatments. Many types of unproven electronic devices are available; all promise to diagnose and treat cancer and other diseases with the use of electromagnetic fields and currents.  These therapies frequently are described in pseudoscientific language borrowed from scientific biophysical concepts. Bioresonance therapy, for example, is based on the unsupported premise that cancer cells and other diseased tissues emit “electromagnetic oscillations” that vary from those generated by healthy cells. Bioresonance devices are said to cancel out or otherwise replace these negative oscillations with healthy ones, thus supporting the body’s own healing processes.
One such machine, the BICOM 2000, is said to pick up “frequency patterns” from the patient’s body. According to the manufacturer’s website, the device “is equipped with special electronics which...transform the modulated frequency patterns from the device into ‘bioresonance magnetic frequency patterns.’” These patterns are then transmitted into the patient’s body as the therapy. Despite its claims, a disclaimer on the website notes that this therapy “has not been subject to scientific research and is, therefore, not yet approved.”
Another device in this category, known alternately as the Quantum Xrroid Interface System (QXCI), EPFX, or SCIO, is said to balance the body’s “bio-energetic forces.” Neither the existence of such forces nor an ability to manipulate them has been documented scientifically. The creator of this device fled to Hungary after being indicted on charges of fraud in the United States but still sells his machine internationally from abroad. In 2008, the FDA banned importation of the device, although it is still used by US practitioners and is purchased by patients in North America. The American Cancer Society strongly cautions cancer patients against using such devices for treatment.
Emotional Stress and Mind/Body Techniques
Many alternative approaches to healing are premised on the concept of the mind/body connection, and specifically on the theory that patients can harness the power of their mind to heal their physical ills. Many mind/body techniques, such as meditation and biofeedback, have been shown to reduce stress and promote relaxation, and are effectively and appropriately used as complementary therapies today. However, some proponents of these techniques overpromise, suggesting that emotional stress or other emotional issues can cause diseases like cancer and that correction of these deficiencies through mind-body therapies can effectively treat major illnesses. Such claims are unsupported.
Many of these ideas were promoted by a former Yale surgeon, a popular author who advocated special cancer patient support groups in his books. The importance of a positive attitude was stressed, as was the idea that disease could spring from unmet emotional needs. This belief anguished many cancer patients, who assumed responsibility for getting cancer because of an imperfect emotional status. Among alternative modalities, the mind/body approach has been especially persistent over time, possibly in part because it resonates with the American notion of rugged individualism.
A related approach, which claims a direct link between the emotional and physical self, is promoted by Ryke Geerd Hamer in his “German New Medicine.” This philosophy asserts that “every disease is caused by a shock experience that catches us completely off guard,” and that this emotional shock instantaneously leads to a physical change in the brain, reportedly causing “a lesion that is clearly visible on a brain scan.” The affected area of the brain is then said to trigger cancer, tissue degeneration, or other problems in the organ system it controls, with the specific nature of the disease “determined by the exact type of conflict shock.”[33,34] The treatment focuses on resolving the initial “psychic shock” and overcoming fear of one’s diagnosis, which paves the way for the body to heal itself. This modality has no biological basis or evidence to support its claims, but is widely disseminated, producing some 175,000 results when searched on Google.
Finally, chronic disease patients may turn to personal prayer or intercessory prayer in hopes of curing cancer and other serious illnesses. Although prayer is harmless—and very helpful to many when used in conjunction with appropriate mainstream treatment—some patients elect to forgo mainstream care in the hope that prayer alone will heal them. A 2009 Cochrane review found that, although certain individual studies suggest some benefit from intercessory prayer, there is no clear evidence that it has any impact on clinical outcome. Prayer may be useful, but not as an alternative to mainstream cancer treatment.
Quackery is an ancient problem, depicted in art perhaps most famously in the 17th century by Jan Steen in his painting “The Charlatan” (“Quacksalver”—from which we get the term “quackery”). Some quacks are true charlatans, while others are believers in what they preach. Both, however, promote unproven or disproved alternative therapies as “cures” for disease. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of patients willing to embark on these questionable and often very expensive treatment plans. Desperate patients and their loved ones—especially when facing serious or untreatable illness—are inclined to believe in miracles.
Unproven approaches are dangerous to patients. Even when the therapy itself does not harm, people too often choose to shun conventional treatment entirely and replace it with an alternative treatment that does nothing to diminish their disease. Public education can help, along with knowledgeable doctors who are familiar enough with alternative approaches to successfully guide patients away from them. With science-based treatment options achieving ever-greater cure rates, quack treatments may eventually lose their appeal.
Financial Disclosure: The authors have no significant financial interest or other relationship with the manufacturers of any products or providers of any service mentioned in this article.
1. Cassileth BR. After laetrile, what? N Engl J Med. 1982;306:1482-4.
2. Lerner IJ. Laetrile: a lesson in cancer quackery. CA Cancer J Clin. 1981;31:91-5.
3. Cassileth BR. Unorthodox cancer medicine. Cancer Invest. 1986;4:591-8.
4. Cassileth BR, Chapman CC. Alternative cancer medicine: a ten-year update. Cancer Invest. 1996;14:396-404.
5. Cassileth BR, Deng G. Complementary and alternative therapies for cancer. Oncologist. 2004;9:80-9.
6. Cut poison burn. Available from: http://www.cutpoisonburn.com. Accessed 25 July 2012.
7. Why are we losing the war on cancer? Available from: http://products.mercola.com/cut-poison-burn-dvd/. Accessed 25 July 2012.
8. Vickers AJ, Kuo J, Cassileth BR. Unconventional anticancer agents: a systematic review of clinical trials. J Clin Oncol. 2006;24:136-40.
9. Lerner IJ, Kennedy BJ. The prevalence of questionable methods of cancer treatment in the United States. CA Cancer J Clin. 1992;42:181-91.
10. Cassileth BR, Lusk EJ, Strouse TB, Bodenheimer BJ. Contemporary unorthodox treatments in cancer medicine. A study of patients, treatments, and practitioners. Ann Intern Med. 1984;101:105-12.
11. Tamayo C, Richardson MA, Diamond S, Skoda I. The chemistry and biological activity of herbs used in Flor-Essence herbal tonic and Essiac. Phytother Res. 2000;14:1-14.
12. Ulbricht C, Weissner W, Hashmi S, et al. Essiac: systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. J Soc Integr Oncol. 2009;7:73-80.
13. Cassileth B. Essiac. Oncology (Williston Park). 2011;25:1098-9.
14. Cancell/Entelev/Cantron. Available from: http://curezone.com/diseases/cancer/cancel.asp. Accessed 25 July 2012.
15. American Cancer Society. Questionable methods of cancer management: Cancell/Entelev. CA Cancer J Clin. 1993;43:57-62.
16. Grossgebauer K. The 'cancell' theory of carcinogenesis: re-evolution of an ancient, holistic neoplastic unicellular concept of cancer. Med Hypotheses. 1995;45:545-55.
17. Barrett S. Questionable cancer therapies. 2010. Available from: http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/cancer.html. Accessed 25 July 2012.
18. American Cancer Society. Shark cartilage. 2008. Available http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/ TreatmentsandSideEffects/ ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/ PharmacologicalandBiologicalTreatment/ shark-cartilage. Accessed 25 July 2012.
19. Sheu JR, Fu CC, Tsai ML, Chung WJ. Effect of U-995, a potent shark cartilage-derived angiogenesis inhibitor, on anti-angiogenesis and anti-tumor activities. Anticancer Res. 1998;18:4435-41.
20. Barber R, Delahunt B, Grebe SK, et al. Oral shark cartilage does not abolish carcinogenesis but delays tumor progression in a murine model. Anticancer Res. 2001;21:1065-9.
21. Weber MH, Lee J, Orr FW. The effect of Neovastat (AE-941) on an experimental metastatic bone tumor model. Int J Oncol. 2002;20:299-303.
22. Loprinzi CL, Levitt R, Barton DL, et al. Evaluation of shark cartilage in patients with advanced cancer: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group trial. Cancer. 2005;104:176-82.
23. Lu C, Lee JJ, Komaki R, et al. Chemoradiotherapy with or without AE-941 in stage III non-small cell lung cancer: a randomized phase III trial. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2010;102:859-65.
24. Federal Trade Commission. "Operation Cure.all" nets shark cartilage promoters: two companies charged with making false and unsubstantiated claims for their shark cartilage and skin cream as cancer treatments. 2000. Available from: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2000/06/lanelabs.shtm. Accessed 25 July 2012.
25. Watt BE, Proudfoot AT, Vale JA. Hydrogen peroxide poisoning. Toxicol Rev. 2004;23:51-7.
26. American Cancer Society. Oxygen therapy. 2008. Available from: http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/ TreatmentsandSideEffects/ ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/ PharmacologicalandBiologicalTreatment/ oxygen-therapy. Accessed 25 July 2012.
27. Cancer healer, Delhi. Available from: http://tripscity.com/delhi/hospitals/ cancer-healer-delhi/. Accessed 25 July 2012.
28. Ramsden D. The four levels of energy healing training. Available from: http://www.blog.deanramsden.com/ energy-healing-training/. Accessed 25 July 2012.
29. Barrett S. BioResonance tumor therapy. 2004. Available from: http://www.quackwatch.org/
01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ Cancer/bioresonance.html. Accessed 25 July 2012.
30. Regumed. BICOM 2000 - easy and convenient to use. Available from: http://www.regumed.com/pages_eng/ therapeuten_new/ it_einfache_anwendung_fs.html. Accessed 25 July 2012.
31. Barrett S. Some notes on the Quantum Xrroid (QXCI) and William C. Nelson. 2009. Available from: http://www.quackwatch.org/ 01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ Tests/xrroid.html. Accessed 25 July 2012.
32. American Cancer Society. Questionable methods of cancer management: electronic devices. CA Cancer J Clin. 1994;44:115-27.
33. Markolin C. German New Medicine. 2009. Available from: http://germannewmedicine.ca/home.html. Accessed 25 July 2012.
34. Gorski D. The “Iron Rule of Cancer”: The dangerous cancer quackery that is the “German New Medicine”. 2009. Available from: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/ index.php/ the-iron-rule-of-cancer-the-new-german-medicine-and-cancer-quackery/. Accessed 25 July 2012.
35. Roberts L, Ahmed I, Hall S, Davison A. Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database Syst Rev (Online). 2009:CD000368.