Choosing Alternative Medicine

Choosing Alternative Medicine


After a terribly painful and debilitating illness, Steve died.  He had been treated for Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Disease with a series of intense therapies including German enzymes, American antineoplastins, Mexican naturopathy and Chinese Herbs, complemented by focused meditation, innumerable vitamins, extreme diet modification and acupuncture for severe pain.  He fought the cancer with every ounce of his being, doing everything to survive, except the one thing that had an 85% chance of cure; chemotherapy.

I was struck this week by a comment on my website, which bemoaned the highly disorganized state of “alternative medicine” in this Country and in particular the “paltry sums” for alternative research funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The writer suggested that not only could the quality of health be improved with alternative medicine studies, but would go a long way towards saving health care dollars.

It seems to me that the idea that we need more Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) research goes right to the core of the confusion between so called “conventional medicine” and CAM.  There is a major difference between the medicine practiced by board certified, classically trained physicians and that of alternative practitioners.  That difference is research and data.

If an MD or DO is treating a cancer patient and that patient asks to see or understand the basic science and clinical studies which support the recommended therapy, that published data is readily available. Standard oncology treatment goes through 10-20 years of research, from the test tube, animal studies and through a series of supervised human multi-phase trials, until it is approved and offered to patients. Each step is refereed by competing and critical PhD and physician scientists and must be published in peer-edited journals for general review and criticism, all of which is public and transparent. Where it is not, and when people attempt to manipulate or falsify the system or data, massive blowback eventually occurs.

Alternative medicine, by its very definition, means that it is an alternative to this system of scientific analysis.  Essentially, anyone can come up with an idea and without any of the above research steps, provide it to patients.  If I decide that sunshine enhanced lemon juice can kill cancer because it is acidic and cancer hates acid, then I can start selling it in pill form tomorrow.  If you look at a long list of CAM therapies, that is what they have in common … the shortcut from idea to bedside.

CAM treatments may have long respected histories. Some, like Chinese Traditional Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine of India, American Homeopathy or Acupuncture, are hundreds or even thousands of years old and have millions of adherents who believe it has helped or even cured them.  Often the most vocal support comes from individual patients regarding their own experience with an alternative treatment. Scientists believe that individual case reports are poor substitutes for the objective analysis of hundreds of patients in experimental trials.  All CAM therapies have limited or no published research to explain the science of these therapies or to prove they work any better than placebo.

When proper research is performed, certain alternative treatments are found to have value.  Vitamin D (with calcium) seems to improve bone density.  Acupuncture can treat migraines and prevent chemotherapy-induced nausea.  Chiropractic is more likely than orthopedic surgery to return patients with routine back pain to employment.  Exercise helps depression and decreases the likelihood that breast cancer will relapse. On the other hand, randomized trials have shown that laetrile (amygdalin) has no anticancer activity and that Vitamin C does not prevent or blunt upper respiratory infections any better than sugar pills.

A key question is that just because the research supporting CAM therapies is limited, does that make them bad?  Not necessarily, but it does mean that when choosing such a method of care, patients need to understand they are making the decision based not on a step-by-step scientific process, but on unproven theory.  It comes down to trust in the CAM practitioner, because no one, not the person providing the treatment, the patient’s primary physician, nor the patient, has any objective evidence to show that the therapy may help or hurt.

Patients have many reasons to choose alternative treatment instead of or in addition to conventional medical care. The most obvious is the powerful desire to do everything possible to fight the disease, to leave no stone unturned.  The need to control one’s destiny, especially if confronted by doctors or a medical system, which seems impersonal, cold and uncaring, drives many patients to seek a different path.  Many patients distrust conventional medical care, and most Americans believe conventionally trained doctors either deliberately or by ignorance fail to offer reasonable alternative therapies. For some there is deep mistrust in the objectivity of the “physician-medical school-pharmaceutical-government complex.”  Traditional religious, superstitious and pseudoscientific reasoning support the CAM decisions of many patients.

Like most physicians, I have seen many patients hurt by CAM therapies. Some by obvious side effects, such as the woman whose breast fell off after receiving a poultice or the man who had such severe nerve damage that he never walked again.  Others delayed life saving therapy with horrible result.  Many spent their last dollars without benefit.  Finally, other patients undoubtedly experienced side effects and perhaps increased cancer growth because we simply do not have the data on alternative therapies to understand what to expect.

CAM therapies are an alternative to conventional medicine.  As we do research on each concept, it will not longer be alternative medicine, but proven or not will fall under studied medical science.  I absolutely agree with the comment on my blog that we need to do more experimentation on any therapeutic concept for which there is a reasonable scientific base.  Every hypothesis, every dream, every hope must be considered. Nevertheless, until ideas are subjected to the light of scientific scrutiny, each patient and family must understand that by alternative we do not mean a therapy which is proven, but out of the mainstream; by alternative we simply mean unknown.

James C. Salwitz, MD is a Medical Oncologist in private practice for 25 years, and a Clinical Professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He frequently lectures at the Medical School and in the community on topics related to cancer care, Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Dr. Salwitz blogs at Sunrise Rounds in order to help provide an understanding of cancer.

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116 Comments on "Choosing Alternative Medicine"

Dec 7, 2014

What do you think about Aloe Vera plant? There is a role and benefits of alternative medicine?


I don’t even know the way I finished up here,
but I believed this post was once good. I don’t know who you might be but certainly you’re
going to a famous blogger when you are not already.


Lee Rivers
Oct 29, 2014

I’m amused that so many people respond as if you were actually supporting what is referred to as “alternative medicine,” when if one reads between the lines—or even just reads objectively—it’s clear that you’re trying to damn with faint praise. Your leading anecdote—while dismissing anecdotal claims made by patients of alternative medicine as worthless—illustrated your true agenda.

That was your anecdote. My anecdote is a heavy smoker with four tumors in the lower lobe of my left lung verified by a pulmonary oncologist who offered a horrifying treatment plan. I used homeopathy, herbs, and nutrition instead. Poof—they’re gone. Two decades later, they’re still gone. Only side effects—increased general health, stronger immune system, stronger nails, shinier hair.

On a personal level, I love the fact that conventional medicine is beginning to feel the heat. A 1997 study (Chez AR, Jonas WB) found Americans made 425 million visits per year to alternative practitioners—40 million more than to primary care physicians. And most had to pay out-of-pocket for it.

CAM is nothing but an attempt to sneak on the bandwagon. Get off and get out. You didn’t want anything to do with us back when I was a young woman and doctors were insisting that given adequate calories, nutrition had nothing to do with health. Oh yes, I remember that as well as how you advised anyone with heart disease to remain as inactive as possible. You have a very long history of VERY bad science that you conveniently fail to acknowledge, all the way back to refusing to wash your hands between patients because anyone who believed in germs was a kook and a quack.

You people and your toxic drugs are losing ground. The only things you have to offer are those that are yours solely due to politics, not knowledge. You are allowed to perform surgery, you are allowed access to hospitals and diagnostic tools, and so you claim superiority. But even with those huge advantages, you’re running on empty, and you’re beginning to wake up to that fact.

You’re crowing about how you have the bucks for scientific studies, but what are they worth to us—the public? You say you can show them to a patient. Well, if that patient wants to do some research on their own, in most cases they can come up with equal and opposite studies. Just visit any bookstore and you’ll find hundreds of doctors all writing books on their specialties, all giving conflicting advice, all insisting their opinion is backed by the best science and that anyone who disagrees is a quack.

In the meantime, your drugs are unspeakable. The only thing you can do with them is suppress symptoms while causing more damage. No problem—you just pretend it’s a new, unrelated disease and send the patient to your buddy down the hall who offers more toxic drugs which will destroy more organs and body systems.

The public is waking up. The party is over. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Tori H
Aug 1, 2014

Alternative and complementary medicine should be mandatory in all medical schools. It has been proven that some types of alternative medicine are beneficial for those who use them. In fact, alternative medicine has become very popular for many different reasons like their use of preventative holistic care. It can also be more cost effective than conventional medicine. Although with alternative medicine, since it is not given by healthcare professionals, fakes can be marketed to the unsuspecting public. If doctors knew a great deal about it they could help patients seek reliable alternative medicine. On a different note, alternative medicine could be, in some cases, very dangerous–even though it is natural medicine. Doctors should be able to speak freely with patients about all benefits and concerns that may arise with seeking alternative medicine. They could then effectively create a safe care plan that includes all of the patients wants.

Apr 21, 2014

The Fraser Institute report revealed that Canadians used complementary alternative therapies nearly nine times per year on average. Alternative and complementary therapies are growing in popularity but traditional medicine should not be counted out.

Apr 21, 2014

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada – More than 70% of Canadians regularly use complementary and alternative health careExternal link therapies such as vitamins and minerals, herbal products, homeopathic medicines and other natural health products to stay healthy and improve their quality of life. I agree that while alternative medicines have become a more popular means of treating health issues a patient should consult with their doctor to explore ALL of their medical options first, both the traditional and alternative types before making a decision.

Apr 10, 2014

There are some cases here in Philippines that alternative medicine cures cancers.


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Feb 26, 2014

Yes, I agree that Alternative Medicine does not work for stage II and upwards as far as cancer is concerned. But there are many cases in India where 1st stage cancers have been successfuly treated by Ayurveda. Ayurvedic medicines are also known to alleviate some of the side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, so there is no harm in combining these modern therapies with Ayurveda.

Feb 10, 2014

The wall of denial are crumbling. As predicted the hordes of hustlers and hucksters are foaming at the mouth in anticipation of huge profits from patients in need. BigPharma is waiting in the wings with GMO cannabis.
In an effort to combat this we have formed a new group dedicated to freely sharing the collective wisdom and experience of many, and providing support to folks in need. The latest ‘fad’ is CBD only medicine, essentially a hype to capture a market.The true value of cannabis as a medicine lies in the entourage effect of the many cannabinoids present in the plant. Many profiteers are marketing extracts, tinctures, oils, sprays, edibles etc and making extravagant claims about the particular efficacy of their product.
In an effort to combat this we have just published the first in a planned series of articles designed to share centuries of healing wisdom, with a specific focus on ‘natural’ remedies, while also acknowledging the place of ‘conventional’ medicine. The ‘top seller’ right now is oral tinctures. We are not selling anything. If you visit our Facebook page at the enclosed link, click on ‘Files, and select EPSILON ESSENTIALS you will find a complete illustrated guide with instructions on how to safely and simply prepare this medicine in your own kitchen. Please remember to consult with a medical professional before making any changes to your existing medication regimen; start low and go slow.
Feedback and comments welcome. If you are interested in joining this group please email me at
Thank you. Be well. Take care of each other.
Patrick Monk. RN Hospice Case Manager. SF. Ca. USA.
Society of Cannabis Clinicians.

Patrick Monk.RN.
Dec 31, 2013

Skimming the responses here I find it revealing that almost without exception, no one, not even those who supposedly support complimentary/alternative medicine, have chosen to address what may be the next revolutionary advance in how we treat many dis-eases. There is a wealth of information easily accessible on-line for those truly committed to providing optimum health care.
One of those can be found at the following link. Much of it may be above my pay-grade but I’m gonna wade through as much as I can.
The list can also be obtained by sending a request to:-
I have no personal connection to, or further information about, those responsible for this site. It is just one of the many useful resources I have found.

Patrick Monk.RN.
Dec 31, 2013

Finally it looks like we may be making significant progress in repealing the prohibition against ‘marijuana’, and unlocking the potential of cannabis as a safe and effective medicine can become a reality. The curative and restorative benefits of this amazing plant have been known and utilised for centuries. Despite decades of denial and deceit it is now becoming increasingly difficult for the ‘drug warriors’ to continue this criminal and inhumane attack on our rights, freedoms and health. Independent research and studies; a few now even taking place in the US-Drug War Central; are confirming what many of ‘us’ have known or suspected for decades.
Hopefully Dr Sanjay Gupta’s recent conversion will give cover and courage to the thousands of medical ‘professionals’ who have so far been to afraid, or ignorant, to speak up and advocate for what may well be in their patient’s best interests, instead of being beholden to, and ‘persuaded’ by, the Pharmaceutical Industry. Cannabis preparations should be routinely considered as a component of any treatment regimen for any condition.
Just my 2c.
Patrick Monk. RN Hospice Case Manager. SF. Ca.
Society of Cannabis Clinicians.

Dec 30, 2013

Magnificent post! One common feature of all definitions of alternative medicine is its designation as “other than” conventional medicine. For example, the widely referenced descriptive definition of complementary and alternative medicine devised by the US National Center for Complementary and Altenative Medicine (NCCAM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), states that it is “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine.” This definition has been criticized as, if an alternative therapy, both effective and safe, is adopted by conventional medical practitioners, it does not necessarily follow that either it or its practitioners would no longer be considered alternative. Thanks, keep up a good work.

Dec 24, 2013

In the presence of a life threatening condition I would do whatever it takes to live. I use alternative medicine more for prevention.

Dec 12, 2013

I completely agree with Jen – thank you for helping spread the word.