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For the record

'Do cancer alternatives really work?' Image

'Do cancer alternatives really work?'

On 7th December, an article in the Daily Express suggested alternative treatments for cancer are effective. The piece contained numerous factual inaccuracies and was misleading to the point of potentially causing harm to cancer patients.

We invited a number of experts to respond to the piece and with their help we produced a corrected version of the article.

Professor Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine, University of Exeter

"There are hundreds of alternative treatments which are promoted as cancer cures and desperate patients fall for them with depressing regularity.

In fact, the notion of an alternative cancer cure is a contradiction in terms: it supposes that mainstream oncology would disregard a promising therapy simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine.

The promotion of alternative cancer cures is irresponsible, cruel, unethical and criminal."

Responding specifically to the parts of The Express article concerning Sally Roberts and her son Neon, Hazel Thornton, Independent Citizen Advocate for Quality in Research and Healthcare 

"So called 'alternative' therapies will not deal with the tumour; nor will they improve the well-being of the child, and should be avoided at all cost. An established brain tumour will need prompt specialist treatment, selected because it has been shown to be effective and safe through rigorous testing and constant evaluation. The child will need care, compassion and understanding – as will the parents."

Professor Paul Pharoah, Professor of Cancer Epidemiology

"We know that diet in general has an important effect on cancer risk. However, this does not mean that having a sensible diet is in any way an alternative to proven and effective cancer therapies such as surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

That some compounds are anti-oxidants is completely irrelevant to whether or not such compounds have any role to play in treating the disease. The effect of any specific nutrient on cancer cells in culture may not have any effect whatsoever in vivo. There are no trials demonstrating that any specific food or nutrient impacts on cancer specific survival after a diagnosis of cancer.

It is over simplistic to relate the eating of sugary food to insulin levels.  Insulin levels are a complex function of a wide range of factors including body weight. There is good evidence that being overweight is associated with a poor prognosis for several cancers.

There have been no well-controlled studies published in the available medical literature that show the Gerson therapy is effective in treating cancer.  It can cause serious side effects though."

Professor Chris Marshall, Director of Research at The Institute of Cancer Research

"I doubt whether it's true that all cancer cells have high levels of insulin receptors – some may do but we know there is no single change that distinguishes cancer cells from normal.  What is clear is that there are strong links between obesity and cancer so a healthy moderate diet is a good idea."

Dr Jane Barrett, President of the Royal College of Radiologists

"The treatment of cancers in children is a highly complex and emotive issue and each case must be treated individually. The decision as to which treatment pathway will be of most benefit to the patient is made by the multidisciplinary team, which includes clinical oncologists who deliver the treatment, and the family by assessing the risks and benefits. The Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG) has devised a series of clear protocols to support this process and whilst radiotherapy is an effective treatment for both children and adults, these decisions are carefully considered and balanced.

Over the past 20 years there have been major advances in the use of radiotherapy with the advent of more accurate treatment beams and by reducing the amount of radiation to which children are exposed. Radiotherapy given to a child's brain can cause longer term side effects including some impairment of IQ development, generally evident as requiring extra help with schooling. In the last decade many children have been treated with a lower dose of radiotherapy with the aim of minimising these effects.

Parents of a child with a brain tumour can be reassured that their treatment programme is based on carefully conducted clinical trials and that if radiotherapy is recommended it is because the benefits outweigh the side effects."

Simon Singh, science writer

"There is no reliable scientific evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating any medical condition. To suggest that homeopathy is effective in treating colds would be unacceptable, but to advocate it in the context of cancer is shameful and appalling journalism.

It is utterly irresponsible to suggest that doctors disregard homeopathy in the treatment of cancer merely because “…it works in a different way to conventional medicine.” The fact is that homeopathy is disregarded because it does not work. Every time journalists peddle this sort of misinformation about a therapy, it misleads readers and harms patients."

Cancer Research UK responded to The Express article here.


Cancer Research UK also sent the following letter to The Express who refused to publish it.

"Dear Sir,

The Daily Express article “Do cancer alternatives really work?” (Friday December 7th) contains misleading information and several inaccuracies that could cause harm to cancer patients.

We understand that people want to try everything after a cancer diagnosis, but strongly urge anyone considering complementary or alternative therapy to talk to their medical team about their safety.  We go to a lot of trouble to make sure we find out what treatments really work though our research, and cancer patients deserve the best information we have, not dangerous speculation.

There is absolutely no solid evidence that Gerson therapy can treat cancer. In fact this treatment can cause very serious side effects.

Cancer patients searching for accurate, reliable information about alternative and complementary therapies can find it on our CancerHelp UK website or by calling our Cancer Information Nurses on 0808 800 4040 (9am-5pm, Monday to Friday).

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK Chief Clinician."

Document type: For The Record

Published: 7 December 2012


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