Fruit and vegetables are good for you but there’s no evidence that they can treat cancer. (Image from Wikimedia commons)

We were concerned to see an article in the Daily Express today asking “Do cancer alternatives really work?” This piece contains factual and scientific inaccuracies, as well as misleading information that could potentially cause harm to people with cancer. We have written a short letter to the Express with our concerns (Edit: which they have declined to publish – see end of post KA), and wanted to address the claims made in the article in full here.

We completely understand that people would like to try everything to help themselves after a diagnosis of cancer, but strongly urge any patient considering complementary or alternative therapy to talk to their cancer doctor or specialist nurse about the safety and effectiveness of such treatments. Some are not safe and can cause serious side effects.

Furthermore, we spend a great deal of time and money doing research to find out what treatments work best (or don’t work) for people with cancer. It is disheartening to see health advice or even therapies being recommended with very little or no evidence to show that they have any benefit for patients.

To highlight specific flaws in this article:

Diet: The article makes claims for the cancer-fighting properties of a number of foods, including avocados, garlic, tomatoes and beetroot (which has apparently “been shown to kill cancer cells”) and also mentions the power of “antioxidants”. While we would agree that it’s important for everyone – including cancer patients – to eat a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables where possible, there is no good evidence to suggest that any particular foodstuff can really treat cancer. The writer makes the mistake of using evidence from experiments with purified vegetable extracts carried out on cells grown in the laboratory to suggest that certain fruits or vegetables can treat cancer in patients. This is not a plausible link. We’ve addressed this issue several times on the blog, including here and here, and have also taken an in-depth look at antioxidants and cancer in two parts.

Sugar: The article claims that eating a lot of sugar is “feeding any cancer cells”. This is an unhelpful oversimplification of a highly complex area that researchers are only just starting to understand. All our cells, cancerous or not, use sugar for energy which is obtained from all sorts of food. We recommend that cancer patients and the general public limit sugary foods as part of an overall healthy diet, but it’s not clear that eating sugary foods specifically “feeds” cancer cells. It’s important that cancer patients discuss their diet with their doctor or specialist nurse before making any big changes – for example, some people may be advised to have a high-calorie diet during chemotherapy to help cope with the effects of treatment.

Stress: The article claims that “stress is a factor in cancer” that has been “scientifically substantiated”. This is a bold overstatement of the current state of research in this area. Many people believe that stress can cause cancer, particularly breast cancer. But the evidence for this is lacking. Stressful events can alter the levels of hormones in the body and affect the immune system. But there is no evidence that these changes could lead to cancer. Most scientific studies have found that stress does not increase the risk of cancer. One study even found that high stress levels can reduce the risk of breast cancer, by lowering oestrogen levels. Even in the event that stress and cancer are linked, the effects would be very small compared to other factors such as smoking, age or family history.

Gerson treatment: Although the article states that Gerson therapy is controversial, it fails to mention that there is absolutely no solid scientific evidence to show that Gerson therapy can treat cancer, and that it can be very harmful to a patient’s health. Coffee enemas have been linked to serious infections, dehydration, constipation, colitis (inflammation of the colon), and dangerous electrolyte imbalances or even death. The information on Gerson therapy in the article is misleading, inaccurate and potentially harmful for cancer patients.

Homeopathy: The article states that homeopathy “is often disregarded because it works in a different way to conventional medicine.” The reality is that there is no solid medical evidence to prove that homeopathy can treat cancer. The way in which homeopathy is proposed to work – by diluting substances to the point where not a single molecule of the active ingredient is present – is not based in scientific fact, and it is widely accepted that the alleged benefits of homeopathy for cancer patients (such as relieving anxiety, depression, pain or nausea) are the result of the placebo effect.

In his recent report, Lord Leveson highlighted the harms to the public from inaccurate and misleading science and health reporting by the press. We are disappointed that the Express has chosen to print this article about a serious health issue without checking the scientific validity of the claims within it. By failing to do this, they have done a disservice to their readers, cancer patients and their families.

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).


Update: Sense About Science has published comments from several experts responding to the Express piece. They have also published a “corrected” version of the article (pdf), which is worth a read.

Update: The Daily Express has declined to publish our letter, which reads as follows:

“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.”