Alternative Cancer Therapies Go Mainstream

Despite decades of searching, scientists are still struggling to find a cure for cancer. And though some conventional treatments can slow the spread of the disease, many are highly toxic and have harsh side effects. So it’s no surprise that six of 10 people with the disease try some form of alternative (also called complementary) therapy, according to a survey by scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which was published in the May 2000 issue of the journal Oncology Nursing Forum.

Partly because so many patients are turning to alternative approaches, mainstream researchers are beginning to put these unproven therapies to the test in carefully controlled studies. Here are some of the most promising currently being investigated:

What it is: A mixture of eight Chinese herbs purported to treat prostate cancer.

Summary: There’s preliminary but promising evidence that it works.

The evidence: Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles have shown that PC-SPES (“PC” stands for prostate cancer, “spes” is Latin for “hope”) blocks the growth of prostate tumor cells in both cell culture and animal experiments. According to their report published in the February 2000 issue of the journal Prostate, the herbal blend inhibits the growth of prostate cancer cells by as much as 50%. That doesn’t prove that it will work in people, of course. But in preliminary studies at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), researchers studying 61 men with prostate cancer found that PC-SPES lowered PSA (prostate specific antigen, a commonly followed blood marker for prostate cancer) levels by at least half in 75% of the men. UCSF researchers also reported that tumors in some of the patients shrank during the treatment with PC-SPES. Still, they also insist that longer-term studies are needed.

Side effects and cautions: In a study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine on September 17, 1998, all men who tried PC-SPES experienced some breast tenderness and loss of libido. Because the herbal brew has an estrogenlike effect, the researchers warn that it could interfere with other medications used to treat prostate cancer. Anyone considering PC-SPES should consult a physician first.

Mind-Body Techniques
What they are: Support groups, relaxation therapies, visual imagery, stress reduction techniques, and other approaches used to help patients relax and focus their minds on easing the symptoms of cancer and chemotherapies. Some researchers believe these techniques can even help patients fight the disease.

Summary: There’s strong evidence that mind-body techniques ease symptoms, and preliminary evidence that they can also increase survival time.

The evidence: In a landmark study published in the journal Lancet on October 14, 1989, Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD, found that women with breast cancer who took part in weekly support groups in addition to their regular treatments lived twice as long, on average, as women who received only conventional therapy. In a follow-up trial, reported in 1999 in the journal Psycho-oncology, Spiegel studied 111 patients with breast cancer. Patients taking part in support groups experienced a 40% decrease in their scores on a scale that measures degree of mood disturbance and a similar drop on a scale that measures anxiety and depression in hospital patients. A wide variety of mind-body techniques are currently being tested at the NIH and at research centers around the country.

Side effects and cautions: The only worry is that some patients may choose mind-body techniques as a substitute for conventional therapy, rather than opting for both. The real benefits of these techniques, most researchers agree, are seen when they are used as a complement to more mainstream treatment.

Shark Cartilage
What it is: A powder or extract made from the connective tissue of sharks, which is purported to contain substances that can shrink tumors.

Summary: There is no solid evidence that shark cartilage fights cancer, and several studies that show it’s worthless.

The evidence: According to research published in the November-December 1998 issue of the journal Anticancer Research, scientists in Taiwan identified potent substances in shark cartilage that can block the formation of blood vessels to tumors. A dose of 200 micrograms of shark cartilage extract given to mice was enough to suppress the growth of melanomas, the researchers reported. Unfortunately, those promising findings haven’t been repeated by other scientists.

Dutch researchers found no evidence that shark cartilage slowed the growth or reduced the size of tumors in mice, according to a report in the journal Acta Oncologia in 1998. What’s more, research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in November 1998, found no evidence of tumor regression in any of 47 patients given shark cartilage. The NIH recently earmarked $2 million for two human trials of shark cartilage, which will be carried out at the University of Texas and the Community Clinical Oncology Program.

Side effects and cautions: In the Journal of Clinical Oncology report, five patients had to be taken off shark cartilage treatment because they experienced nausea, vomiting, or constipation. Many cancer doctors worry that patients will use this unproven treatment in lieu of standard therapy. Environmentalists worry that the use of shark cartilage could endanger shark populations.

The Gonzalez Protocol
What it is: A complicated regimen that includes taking oral pancreatic enzymes, coffee enemas, and more than 150 pills daily, including vitamins, minerals, papaya extract, and animal glandular extracts. It is purported to treat pancreatic cancer.
Summary: One very small study shows promise. This approach requires strict physician supervision.

The evidence: In a preliminary study of just 11 patients, Nicholas Gonzalez, MD, reported that five patients survived more than two years on the regimen — nearly three times longer than most patients with this rapidly fatal form of cancer. Pancreatic enzymes are believed by some researchers to have cancer-killing properties, although the evidence is far from complete. The NIH recently approved a $1.4 million grant for a five-year clinical study of the Gonzalez protocol, which will be carried out by scientists at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. The trial is currently enlisting patients with pancreatic cancer.

Side effects and cautions: The Gonzalez protocol is a very demanding regimen which should only be undertaken under a doctor’s strict supervision, because of the potentially toxic effects of combining many different supplements.

NOTE: It is once again amazing to me the attention given to Dr. Gonzalez and “his” program – an apparent watered down version of the work of Dr. William Donald Kelley. Dr. Gonzalez was in fact the student sent to study the case histories of Kelley’s patients – and to prove the Kelley Program to be that of a madman. Mr. Jaret, the author of the piece, which you are reading, would do well to study Kelley – with an open mind – then the truth would come to the surface. (Ed.)

Vitamin Supplements
What they are: Megadoses of vitamins or minerals that are purported to prevent the formation or growth of cancer cells. Key nutrients under investigation are vitamin E and selenium.

Summary: Preliminary findings show real promise. Be sure to check with your doctor about dosage.

The evidence: In findings published in the May 1998 issue of the British Journal of Urology, 974 men with prostate cancer were given either 200 micrograms of selenium supplements or placebo pills daily for a period of about 4.5 years. Men in the supplement group had a 63% reduction in the incidence of new prostate tumors. They were also significantly less likely to die from all forms of cancer within the 6.5 years that researchers tracked them. Three large randomized trials funded by the National Cancer Institute found that taking vitamin E and selenium significantly lowered lung cancer risk.

Side effects and cautions: At high doses, selenium can be extremely toxic. Ingesting vitamin E at doses higher than 1,000 IUs can thin the blood and cause internal bleeding. Experts caution against taking very high doses of either of these supplements without consulting a doctor.

Macrobiotic Diet
What it is: A strict diet that eliminates meat and dairy products and derives 50% to 60% of its calories from whole grains, 25% to 30% from vegetables, and the rest from beans, seaweed, and other plant sources.

Summary: There is strong evidence that plant-based diets can help prevent cancer. The effectiveness of these diets as a treatment remains controversial.

The evidence: Although there is no direct evidence yet that a macrobiotic diet will prevent or slow the growth of tumors, there is plenty of evidence that its components are potent cancer-fighters. In a report in the journal Nutrition and Cancer in August 1998, epidemiologist Larry Kushi, PhD, and his colleagues showed that a diet very rich in whole-grain foods can protect against a variety of cancers. Hundreds of studies have found an association between vegetable consumption and a lower risk of many forms of the disease, including colon, lung, prostate, and breast cancers, according to epidemiologist John Potter, PhD, of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle. A large-scale human study of macrobiotic diets and cancer, funded by the NIH, is currently underway.

Side effects and cautions: Although a macrobiotic diet is very rich in vitamins and minerals, it is low in protein compared to the average American diet. Patients are advised to talk to their physicians before beginning any strict diet regimen.

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer based in Petaluma, Calif. His work has appeared in Health, Hippocrates, National Geographic, and many other publications.

NOTE: I find it interesting that most of the above cancer therapies all contain elements of Dr. Kelley’s research, which goes back nearly four decades. There will be more to come – stay tuned! (Ed.)

Originally published on, May 1, 2001. (Ed. 12.27.10)

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: