Study Slams Some Alternative Cancer Treatments

They include Laetrile, shark cartilage and metabolic therapies, among others

FRIDAY, March 12, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Several alternative cancer treatments that are often described as unproven have actually been researched and debunked, and they therefore should be termed "disproven," a new report says.

Andrew Vickers, an assistant attending research methodologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, evaluated data from clinical trials of several alternative cancer therapies, including Laetrile, shark cartilage and metabolic treatments, among other approaches.

Vickers notes many of the treatments he reviewed are no longer available or no longer popular. He defines these alternative therapies as those "that attempt to extend life and are used instead of conventional care such as surgery or radiation."

"I wasn't looking at complementary therapies. We actually provide those at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. They are used to treat the symptoms of cancer," Vickers says. For instance, he explains, Sloan-Kettering researchers are studying the value of acupuncture for end-stage cancer pain.

"I was looking at therapies that claim to increase your life span," Vickers says. For instance, he reviewed a treatment that's based on the belief that all cancers are caused by a single bacterium. The treatment includes efforts to "detoxify" the immune system through diet and enemas, Vickers says.

But when the therapy was compared to conventional treatments, there was no difference in survival between the groups. And those treated at the clinic that offered the therapy had a poorer quality of life, Vickers says.

The report appears in the March/April issue of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

In the paper, Vickers also refutes chaparral, a desert shrub popular with Native American healers before becoming an anticancer remedy; high doses of Vitamin C; Laetrile, a treatment popular in the 1970s derived from apricot pits; shark cartilage; and other treatments.

Vickers also worries about the time and financial costs for patients who invest in the disproven therapies. These costs can run $60,000 for a six-month course, when expenses such as travel, room and board and pay for a caregiver are tallied up, he says.

Leanna Standish, a senior research scientist and naturopathic physician at Bastyr University in Seattle, praises Vickers' study for its information, but adds "this paper comes at a very late date." Among health-care providers who are trained in complementary and alternative methods (CAM), "it is widely known that the evidence base for these old and out-of-date alternative treatments is very weak indeed," she says.

"Who prescribes hydrazine sulfate, high-dose vitamin C, chaparrel or shark cartilage anymore?" Standish asks.

She adds that health-care providers might take a moment to explore why cancer patients seek out such treatment. "The reason cancer patients continue to seek CAM is because our current 'proven' therapies for most solid tumors such as lung, breast and colon are still not very effective, have difficult side effects for many, and people are still dying of cancer."

Says Vickers: "We discourage people from using alternative cancer therapies. And that would include anything you have to stop conventional care to do."

More information

For information on alternative therapies, visit the American Cancer Society. The society also has plenty of information on all forms of the disease.

SOURCES: Andrew Vickers, Ph.D., assistant attending research methodologist, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City; Leanna Standish, N.D., Ph.D., L.Acup., senior research scientist, Bastyr University, Seattle; March/April 2004 CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians
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