Many are aware of the adverse side effects of conventional methods to treat cancer, yet much scepticism remains regarding natural cancer treatments. Such scepticism is hardly surprising since all the conventional cancer treatments have gone through rigorous testing to ‘prove’ they work whereas there has been limited testing on alternative treatments; it can therefore be argued that there is no scientific basis to support their effectiveness in treating cancer. This leads to a fear that some alternative therapies may not be completely safe and could lead to harmful side effects. This is ironic really, given that the harmful side effects of conventional cancer treatments are well known.
Notwithstanding, in the UK it is estimated that approximately 30-50% of people with cancer have tried some sort of natural therapy depending on their type of cancer. In the US, it is purported that as many as 60% of cancer patients have sought alternative treatments. Here in Malaysia, recent research found that just over 40% of cancer patients have used alternative medicines. Clearly there is still a large percentage of the global population of cancer sufferers that remain sceptic and turn to conventional treatments in the hope that they will be cured inspite of the known side effects. Below, I summarise the common side effects associated with conventional cancer treatments.
Side Effects of Conventional Cancer Treatment
The problem with conventional cancer treatments is that they invariably have a detrimental affect on healthy cells, tissues, or organs. The most common side effects are decreased blood cell counts, fatigue, hair loss, mouth sores, nausea, pain, and vomiting.
For the purpose of this discussion I will focus on Chemotherapy, Radiotherapy, Immunotherapy, and Targeted therapy. I will not discuss cancer surgery, since as with any surgery there are always risks, either from the surgery itself or the drugs used.
There are currently more than 100 chemotherapy drugs available for cancer treatment all of which have detrimental side effects. The most common side effects are anaemia, constipation, fatigue, hair loss, infection due to a weakened immune system, nausea and vomiting, a tendency to bruise or bleed easily.
For most people the side effects are temporary and will normally stop once treatment has finished, but there are cases where people experience long term side effects such as changes to the feeling in their extremities, early menopause, heart problems, infertility, lung problems.
The extent of these side effects depend on the types of drugs used, the type of cancer being treated, and the general health of the patient. The cause of the side effects is due to the drugs not only attacking the cancer cells but also attacking healthy cells mainly in the blood, hair follicles, digestive tract, and the reproductive system.
Radiotherapy uses high dose radiation to target specific areas where the cancer cells have formed. Immediate side effects are normally fatigue and some form of skin reaction such as blistering, dryness, itchiness, and peeling. Patients may also experience mood swings and difficulty sleeping. Again there is also the possibility of long-term side effects particularly in the area treated; changes in skin pigmentation, permanent hair loss, red spidery marks on the skin, swelling in the area due to blocked drainage channels (lymphoedema), and infertility, to name a few.
Research has shown that cancer cells are sometimes able to avoid detection and destruction by the immune system. In the past few years, advances in cancer immunology have produced several new methods of treating cancer, called immunotherapies. As the name implies, immunotherapy is designed to help the body’s own immune system fight cancer in one of two ways. One way is to boost the immune system’s response to better fight against tumours. Alternatively, immunotherapy can be used to bind to or ‘mark’ the cancer cells making it easier for the immune system to find them and kill them off.
The most common side effects are due to reaction at the needle site, for example itchiness, rashes, swelling, and soreness. A patient may also develop flue-like symptoms such as dizziness, fever, headaches, joint or muscle aches, overall weakness, and so on. Other reported side effects include diarrhoea, fluid retention, heart palpitation, low or high blood pressure, sinus congestion and risk of infection. Although very rare, immunotherapies have also been purported to cause severe allergic reactions, there have even been instances of fatal allergic reactions. Getting the ‘vaccine’ and it’s dosage right is proving to be the most challenging aspect of this treatment and while the common side effects appear minor compared to other conventional treatments, there is still no ‘magic bullet’.
Targeted cancer therapies are again a drug-based treatment that are designed to block the growth and spread of cancer at the molecular level. These drugs interfere with specific molecules that lead to the growth and progression of the cancer. There are limitations though in regard to the efficacy of targeted therapy; cancer cells have been found to develop a resistance to the drugs either by mutating to reduce drug interaction or by finding alternative ways to grow and thereby reducing it’s reliance on the target.
Although arguably the drugs used for targeted cancer therapies are less toxic than chemotherapy there are still substantial side effects. The most common side effects include diarrhoea and problems with liver, such as hepatitis and elevated liver enzymes. Other side effects may include dry skin, hair depigmentation, increased blood pressure, problems with wound healing, sores, diminished sperm production, subdued immune system, and on the rare occasion, gastrointestinal perforation.
Why Use Natural Cancer Treatments?
During my research for this post, I came across the painting that you see to the right. Painted during the late 16th century it is a portrait of the Roman Emperor Rudolf II portrayed as Vertumnus, the Roman god of nature and life. The portrait is meant to represent man’s perfect balance and harmony with nature. It is this balance that forms the fundamental basis of natural healing.
Unfortunately, this balance has been lost, particularly over the past half century, as our world becomes more and more polluted with manmade toxins. Our air, soil, water, and even our food, create an ever increasing burden on our bodies. Combined with a general lack of nutrition and increasing consumption of sugar and its derivatives, is it any wonder that the number of cancer cases has increased ten-fold compared to instances recorded in the 1970’s (at that time it was estimated that approximately 10% of Americans suffered from cancer). These days, despite the trillions of dollars spent on the conventional war against cancer, in the US alone, it is expected that one out of two men and one out of three women will develop cancer, that’s a staggering increase of 40%, meaning at least 50% of the population will develop cancer.
What are the Side Effects of Natural Remedies?
Whereas conventional medicine focuses on targeting the cancer cells themselves while overlooking the underlying cause, natural healing practitioners take a more holistic approach and attempt to restore the natural balance within the body and to strengthen the immune system’s ability to fight and kill the unwanted cells; of course there are also side effects but none so devastating as those associated with conventional treatments.
There are many available natural remedies purported to heal and treat cancer, too many for me to list and discuss each one here, but in my search for side effects I really could not find any that are as critical as the ones highlighted above for conventional treatments. There are mentions of diarrhoea, effects on blood pressure, and caution for pregnant mothers. As a specific example, soursop contains neurotoxins of which excessive consumption could lead to impaired memory, headaches, perhaps loss of balance; patients with Parkinson’s disease should also be cautious.
In terms of conventional medicine, the medical professionals argue that the consumption of natural remedies interact and negate the efficacy of conventional drugs, and yet in 2006 a FDA study of calls to a poison control centre, showed that less than 0.01% of those calls could be attributed to suspected herb-drug interactions. In fact there is now research ongoing to determine how natural supplements can assist conventional treatments while decreasing the common side effects.
Despite the ongoing criticism from the mainstream medical profession, there are clear advantages in using natural methods to treat cancer:
- Non-invasive, there is no requirement to remove the ‘offending’ part of the body.
- Reduced risk of side effects which are comparatively less severe than conventional medicines.
- More effective for long-standing ailments that are not responding to conventional treatments.
- Much lower cost than conventional medicines.
- Readily available and in some cases can even be grown at home.
The disadvantages in my opinion are negligible and possibly the main risk is poisoning if one is not aware of the properties of a given herb or plant. The lack of regulation, unclear dosage requirements, and of course the lack of scientific research may also be considered as disadvantages.
In a world where statistics show a 30% success rate for conventional treatments and only a 2.5% five-year survival rate for stage-4 cancer patients treated with chemotherapy, I would much rather put my faith in the wisdom of generations of use of natural treatments and the increasing number of testimonials from patients that have healed themselves naturally.