This booklet was produced in June 2000 by Cancer Education & Information Service, National Cancer Centre in Singapore.

Quote : "If you have found the contents in this booklet helpful, share it with someone else whom you think will need it." reckons that this book will be beneficial to its members and has reproduced it electronically.

Alternative Therapy - Making Your Choice



This booklet has been developed to help you understand more about alternative unconventional and unproven treatments in cancer. We hope the information from this booklet will answer some of the questions you may have. This booklet only serves as a guide and its contents are not to be taken as medical advice. You need to discuss with your doctor the best treatment for you.


A diagnosis of cancer can be overwhelming. When cancer is first diagnosed there is often little time or energy for thought. Apart from dealing with the emotional impact of the diagnosis, people with cancer also have to make a decision about the type of treatment they need. Many people will accept the advice of their doctor and seek the best conventional cancer treatment. However, some cancer patients and their family seek alternative types of treatment. There are many alternative therapies and the information can be confusing.

You will probably receive lots of advice and information about cancer treatments and remedies, new or old. It may come from many sources - doctors, friends, family, colleagues, the Internet, pamphlets, magazines, books, etc. Some advice will be good, wise and useful; some may be confusing and misleading.

This booklet aims to help you sort through these information and ask useful questions when deciding which treatment is best for you.

What is Alternative Therapy?

Cancer treatment falls broadly into three categories : conventional or mainstream treatment, complementary therapy and alternative/unconventional therapy.

Should I try an Alternative Therapy?

People have the right to choose their own treatment. However, to make an informed decision people need to know and understand as much as possible about their cancer and its treatment. This helps them to feel in control and to make choices that are best for them.

Look carefully at alternative treatments that you read or hear about. This may include asking questions such as :

  1. What is the basis of the therapy and have the claims been tested?
  2. Where have the claims been reported or does it rely on personal testimonials as evidence that the methods work?
  3. How many people have taken up that particular therapy?
  4. What are the qualifications of the person prescribing and administering the treatment?
  5. what are the successes and where were the results published?
  6. What are the possible side effects?
  7. Can these effects be prevented or controlled?

If these questions cannot be answered satisfactorily, then you should be suspicious that the remedy has no proven value. Check that the therapy is solely a specific cancer treatment and not also recommended for a variety of other diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

You should also consider the following :

Talking with your Doctor

Doctors generally understand that people with cancer will consider using alternative therapies. They also understand that medicine does not have all the answers. If you are thinking of trying an unproven remedy or alternative therapy, it is best to talk it over with your treating doctor. Your doctor can help you :
Your doctor will need to know if you are using other methods as some of these therapies can clash with mainstream treatments.

Remember, if you are well-informed and understand your treatment, this will also help your doctor. You will be better able to cope with side effects or notice any unusual signs that the doctor should be told about.

How do I start?

If you find it difficult to talk to your doctor about alternative therapies, some people find this approach works:
" I heard about the ....treatment for cancer. Can you tell me why some doctors don't accept it? Why do some people think that it works and others believe that it doesn't? Do you think this treatment will help me at all?"
By simply asking questions you have just asked for more information. You have not attacked or doubted the conventional treatment you are receiving or the person treating you. If you do not understand the answer, ask the doctor to explain it again in a different way. Doctors often use technical words without realizing and are usually happy to explain it again if you ask. You have the right to information. Some people find it helpful to write down beforehand a list of questions to ask their doctors.

Why do people turn to Alternative Medicine?

People look to alternative therapy for the same reasons they look to mainstream treatments for cancer - they want a cure, they want to remain well and be in control of their lives, they want the best quality of life possible - they want to be healed, in body and mind.

Conventional cancer treatments can never promise to cure a cancer. Many people are cured - yet many also fail to respond to their treatment.

Some people want to try all possibilities to stop the cancer. It may give them peace of mind to have tried everything. Some people cling to the belief that, however small the chance, alternative therapy might work for them.

Conventional cancer treatments sometimes have unpleasant side effects. Surgery can be painful and some can change your body image. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy both destroy cancer cells but in the process, they also damage some normal cells and this causes side effects.

In contrast, alternative therapy often promises an approach that is 'natural', simple, effective, harmless and without side effects.

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and hormone therapy cannot claim to be harmless. But they are getting very much better at destroying cancer cells and leaving healthy cells untouched. These treatments have a good chance of achieving their aim to cure or slow down cancer. There is usually something that can be done to reduce, prevent or control side effects.

For some people, trying on alternative therapy is a way of keeping alive the hope of a cure when nothing else is working.

Why do Alternative Therapies work for some people?

You may read or hear of people who claim that their cancer was cured by an alternative therapy. Most of these people may have had conventional treatment as well, often shortly before or at the same time as they were using alternative therapy. Conventional treatment can sometimes take weeks or months to work fully.

Sometimes, the cancer is not cured but is still present or progressing although the person feels well in the short term. Most cancers show no symptoms during much of their course, so many people with cancer can be misled into believing they have been cured even though the cancer is still progressing. (This is the reason why doctors wait many years before saying that a cancer is cured.)

Doctors cannot always predict the course of cancer. Some cancers grow and spread much faster than expected. In other cases, a person may live longer than what the doctor has predicted. Sometimes a cancer will simply go away, quite unexpectedly. We do not know why this happens but these people have almost always had conventional treatment. Some may have used alternative or unproven remedies, but some have not.

It is important to remember that people promoting unproven or alternative treatments do not publicise their failures eg: - the many people for whom the treatment does not work or the ones who never return to the practitioner.

How do I know that my current treatment is the best for me?

It is sometimes difficult to decide on the best treatment for each person. This is because each person's cancer is different and some treatments are still relatively new.

For most cancers, there is one course of treatment that has proved to be most successful. Doctors use their own expertise and judgement to recommend the treatment that is most suitable. They draw on the experience of other doctors and researchers, published in medical and scientific journals.

If your doctor is a specialist in cancer care, and if you are well informed about your cancer and the options for treatment and support available, you are in the best position to decide what is the best treatment for you. If you are dissatisfied with your treatment or if you simply want someone else's view, you can always ask for a second opinion from another doctor.

Can I use Alternative Therapy while I am on conventional cancer treatment?

Many people use alternative therapy while they are having conventional treatment and usually it causes no problems. However, it is important to tell your treating doctor what you are doing or intending to do. This way, you can ensure that your conventional treatment will continue to work well and not clash with the other forms of treatment that you may be receiving.

What if I give up conventional treatment for Alternative Therapy?

You have the right to choose your treatment. However, do consider the risk of losing the benefits that conventional treatment offers. Do not make hasty decisions. Always weigh the pros and cons of each treatment before making a decision.

Some notes on Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is a booming industry. The use of herbs in medicine is ancient in its origins. New cancer drugs such as Paclitaxel continue to show the usefulness of plants in anti-cancer treatment. Basic to the use of herbs is the belief that the whole plant is superior to that made from certain parts of the plant, with fewer side effects. There is little evidence for this belief. The safety of many herbs is unknown.

Ma huang or ephedra contains esphedrine that can cause headache, dizziness, palpitations and possibly strokes and heart attacks. Yet it has been promoted as a safe alternative for weight loss. The consumer must interpret these claims made by manufacturers and prescribers of herbal medicines carefully.

Questions you can ask about Alternative or Unproven Remedies

The following questions will help you obtain more information and assess the treatment that you intend to take up. If these questions cannot be answered to your satisfaction by the practitioner of a particular alternative therapy, then you have the grounds to be wary about the therapy offered or the practitioner offering it. Talk it over and discuss with various people including your cancer doctor and nurse counselors at the Cancer Helpline.

About Treatment
About the Practitioner With the information obtained form asking these questions, you will be better equipped to decide on which alternative therapy you want to take up or is it even necessary to use one.

*********** End ***********

Footnote : The Cancer Education & Information Service (CEIS) offers telephone counseling and written information through the Cancer Helpline to anyone affected by cancer. They can help with general enquiries; their oncology nurse counselors can also discuss specific issues with people who are affected by cancer. The Cancer Helpline can be reached at 2255655.