Internet websites promoting ‘alternative’ cures for cancer can seriously harm patients who follow their advice . And some are downright dangerous – according to an editorial published today in the British Journal of Cancer.

A survey of 13 sites relating to alternative or complementary medicine and cancer found that patients were not only discouraged from using conventional cancer therapies but were not informed about alternative remedies that have been shown to be ineffective.

The warning is sounded by scientists at Exeter University’s Department of Complementary Medicine.

Professor Edzard Ernst, who headed research into the subject, says most sites visited recommended a multitude of treatments with little consensus between them.

“Cancer patients get confused in the maze of claims and counter claims and often turn to the Internet for information which can give advice that has led to real harm and even death in some cases.”

The study defined five sites as potentially harmful to patients who followed their advice. And two sites, and were described as “dangerous” to cancer patients.

Researcher Katja Schmidt says that downgraded conventional cancer treatments by statements such as ‘women with breast cancer are likely to die faster with chemotherapy than without’ and that ‘of approximately half a million people who die of cancer each year only about two to three per cent actually gain benefit from chemotherapy.’

She says: “The site lists treatments such as herbal remedies and shark cartilage as offering ‘promise as cancer treatment.’ With a statement like that a patient might abandon orthodox cancer treatment on the basis of the arguments on this website. Also the site has no mention of a governing body nor a reference to frequency of updates. It offers products for sale and is supported by advertising.”

The site provides no details of research efforts for the therapies it promotes nor does it request a patient should also seek conventional advice. “It claims that alternative therapies being used to treat and/or cure cancer are botanicals such as goldenseal, pokeroot, wild indigo, thuja, figwort, red clover, Essiac and astragalus. But there is no evidence that any of these herbal medicines cure cancer,” says Schmidt.

When people are diagnosed with cancer they are in shock and feel a real sense of crisis. ” They think:’ What else can we do?’ ” says Prof Ernst. “They read pages of information on websites and read that shark cartilage promises a cure for cancer. Patients are overloaded with information and it is very difficult for them to assess the credibility of information they find on random websites.

“As long as statements on the web don’t promise a cure but simply offer a chance to improve the quality of a cancer patient’s life – that is quite a different matter. If a person feels better after massage or reflexology or aromatherapy that is a good thing – as long as the patient is aware that this is not a cure.”

By contrast the researchers praised Cancer Research UK’s award-winning website designed specifically for patients by a team of medical experts. Called CancerHelp UK this site “is a very useful source of information regarding conventional cancer treatments,” says Schmidt.

“Complementary cancer treatments are also discussed. There are details of research given for various therapies and the site provides references to sources of information, links to other cancer websites and is frequently updated. It provides non-profit primary information.”

Chief executive of Cancer Research UK Sir Paul Nurse says: ” Cancer Research UK works with scientists involved in looking at complementary medicine which, as the name suggests, can complement orthodox treatment and bring benefits to the patient. There is a confusing amount of information about cancer treatment and so called ‘alternative’ cancer cures available on the Internet. Many of these have no clinical or scientific basis and so it is vitally important that patients seek advice from their doctors before embarking on any alternative therapy. Our CancerHelp UK website only offers patients information that has been extensively checked by a wide variety of specialists with experience of treating the disease.”



Complementary medicine aims to work in harmony with conventional treatment and as a supplement to it. Alternative medicine tends to substitute orthodox medicine with unconventional and often unproven treatments.

CancerHelp UK has won awards from the British Medical Association and the Plain English Campaign and offers information on all forms of cancer for both patients and their families as well as answering those questions that patients forget or fear to ask their doctors. It gives a sensitive yet authoritative guide to cancer-related topics ranging from how to get on a clinical trial to what support groups are available. Best of all it is designed for people who may not be familiar with the Internet giving detailed guidance on how to move from sections on cancer treatments to living with the disease. There is advice on prevention, checks and healthy eating as well as sections on the latest scientific research and patients’ questions and answers. There are simple links to booklists and an opportunity for patients or their families to make their own contribution to the site. Experts regularly check the website to ensure all information is up to date.