“Patients want something ‘natural’ to try to treat their cancer or prevent their cancer from coming back,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering pharmacist and herbalist K. Simon Yeung. “But the people promoting these treatments might not necessarily have a medical or oncology background. In addition, patients who try these therapies may find, when they come back to seek mainstream treatment, that it’s too late and their cancer has already spread.”
Dr. Yeung is manager of the About Herbs database, created and maintained by MSK’s Integrative Medicine Service. The service provides complementary therapies such as acupuncture, music therapy, and massage that are used in addition to — not as alternatives for — mainstream cancer approaches such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
Here, Dr. Yeung explains the hype and the scientific evidence surrounding three highly publicized but unproven therapies: cannabis oil, Laetrile, and a pH-manipulation (also known as alkaline) diet.
The hype: Cannabis oil is often heralded as a treatment to destroy or shrink cancerous tumors, as well as a cure for diabetes, ulcers, arthritis, migraines, insomnia, infections, and many other diseases. Also called marijuana oil or hemp oil, it’s extracted from marijuana plants, often with higher proportion of a compound known as CBD (cannabidiol), which has less of a psychoactive effect than the more-famous THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) compound that gets marijuana users high.
Cannabis oil is available in several forms with different potencies. It can be infused into cooking oil that users squirt under the tongue or mix into food. Its vapors can also be inhaled. By federal law, cannabis products are illegal, though several states have enacted laws to legalize their medical use.
The evidence: While commercially available cannabis compounds are FDA-approved to reduce cancer treatment–related side effects such as nausea and vomiting and to improve appetite, no clinical trials have shown that cannabis products can treat cancer.
Claims that cannabis oil cures cancer are anecdotal and largely unsupportable, based on scant research done in mice and in labs. Side effects can include memory and attention loss. Perhaps most important, there is evidence that cannabis compounds may inhibit enzymes that patients need to metabolize other anticancer drugs, thereby increasing their toxicity or reducing their effectiveness.
The verdict: “So far, there are no human studies that show cannabis oil can be used as cancer treatment,” Dr. Yeung says. “Patients who are using it — or any form of marijuana — should let their doctors know so they can advise you properly.”
The hype: Laetrile, first popularized as a cancer therapy in Russia and the United States more than a century ago, is the trade name for a purified form of amygdalin, an extract derived from apricot pits and some nuts and plants. Intestinal enzymes break down Laetrile to produce cyanide, which proponents claim kills cancer cells and leaves normal tissue unharmed. Some also claim that Laetrile is actually a vitamin called B-17 and that deficiencies can cause certain cancers. Banned in the United States, an oral form of Laetrile is available in other countries.
The evidence: Laetrile indeed breaks down into cyanide, but the poison doesn’t just selectively strike cancer cells — it can sicken or kill patients as well. Clinical studies done in the 1970s and 1980s, including those sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, indicated that Laetrile didn’t reduce malignant tumors’ size or growth, but some patients experienced cyanide poisoning.
The verdict: “Laetrile has not been proven to be effective against cancer and can even be dangerous to some patients,” Dr. Yeung says. “If amygdalin is eventually used in an anticancer drug, it will have to be in a different form, because the oral form is toxic and too dangerous to use.”
Manipulating pH Levels through Diet
The hype: Based on the scientific observation that cancer cells thrive in an acidic environment — meaning low pH levels — some people contend that highly “acidic” foods such as meat, cheese, and grain products raise the risk of cancer by reducing pH levels in the blood. They claim that eating “alkaline” foods such as fruit, green vegetables, and other plant-based products discourages the growth of cancer cells by raising blood pH levels and tout the benefits of the alkaline diet (also known as the alkaline ash diet or alkaline acid diet).
The evidence: Cancer cells create an acidic microenvironment due to a high metabolic rate. Cancer cells can’t live in a highly alkaline environment, but neither can healthy cells. Your body works to keep pH levels constant, and changing your diet is not going to substantially change the pH levels of your blood, which are tightly regulated by the kidneys and lungs regardless of foods consumed.
The pH of bodily fluids, such as saliva and urine, does change temporarily depending on the foods you eat, but that doesn’t affect blood pH levels (or, hence, the environment of cancer cells in the body). In fact, any significant deviation in blood pH levels can cause serious, even life-threatening conditions known as acidosis (low pH) or alkalosis (high pH)
The verdict: “There is no evidence that changing your diet to alter pH levels affects cancer growth,” Dr. Yeung says. “The actual science has been misinterpreted. Changing the pH in your saliva doesn’t mean your blood pH changes. Some patients try using chemicals to modify their blood pH, but that can be extremely dangerous.”
The Bottom Line
“Natural” cancer therapies should be regarded with great caution because most are unsupported by evidence. Many people offering testimonials to the effectiveness of such treatments may attribute benefits to them simply because their condition improved after using them — when the actual cause for the improvement is unrelated.
The good news is that mainstream cancer therapies are safer and more effective than ever. New chemotherapies work better with fewer side effects, and novel drugs target specific mutations in cancer cells to minimize harm to healthy cells. Highly precise forms of radiation therapy destroy tumors while sparing normal tissue. New approaches harness the body’s own immune powers to destroy cancer cells. And new surgical techniques are making it possible to remove tumors more safely while minimizing both risk of recurrence and recovery times.
If you’re considering using a complementary therapy in addition to your traditional cancer treatments, always check with a reputable source such as our About Herbs database or the National Cancer Institute, and always tell your doctor.