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Alternative cancer diets

Some people with cancer try complementary or alternative therapies to help with diet problems or even cancer itself.

Complementary and alternative therapies

Most people who work in cancer care know that complementary therapies can be helpful. You can have it alongside your usual medical treatment. The benefit of these therapies is that you might feel you have a bit of time with yourself. It can also improve your sense of well-being and help you cope better.

Our advice

Cancer Research UK don't recommend alternative therapies in place of usual medical treatment. There is little (if any) scientific or medical evidence that it works.

Unproven methods instead of your usual cancer treatment can make you very ill. Talk to your specialist about any alternative therapies that you want to try.

Some of these are very safe, work well, and you can have it with standard treatments.

For example, taking ginger or practising relaxation techniques such as visualisation and hypnotherapy. Acupuncture can help control nausea. It works particularly well when used with anti sickness drugs.

Being cautious

Some unproven alternative diets may not be safe and may make things worse.

Some alternative therapists may claim to be able to cure your cancer or its symptoms. This is often after usual medical treatments have not been successful. Reputable therapists won't make these claims.

There are many other types of alternative therapies not covered here. It is always best to check them out before you start using one.

If in doubt about alternative cancer diets, you can call the Cancer Research UK nurses free on 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Continue to eat a well balanced diet

Keep eating a well balanced diet if you try any alternative diet. Even when taking a nutritional supplement, make sure you eat a balanced diet.  
 
It can be harmful to deprive yourself of protein, carbohydrates (including sugars) and fats. Your body needs them to repair itself and keep going.

You may have seen reports in the media that sugar feeds cancer. All cells in our body need sugar for energy, including cancer cells. But there is no evidence that restricting your sugar intake will stop a tumour growing.   

If in doubt about any diet or supplement, ask to see a dietitian at your hospital and talk it through. There are also organisations that give information and support.

Special cancer diets

There are many types of diets that claim to cure your cancer. Two common ones are below.

Gerson therapy

Gerson therapy is a disciplined type of therapy. It involves giving yourself coffee enemas. You also eat lots of raw fruit and vegetables and their juices. And you take supplements.

People who promote this therapy claim that it cleanses your body. Another claim is that it stimulates your metabolism. There is no scientific evidence that this is true.

In fact, Gerson therapy can be harmful. It may not be the best diet for you to follow when are ill and already undernourished.

Macrobiotic diets

A macrobiotic diet is made up of vegetarian foods. The main foods are cereals, cooked vegetables and whole grains.

There is no scientific evidence that it can treat or control the symptoms of cancer.

Although the foods involved are healthy, the diet can lead to poor nutrition. Unless well planned, you can get an imbalance of nutrients.

Other cancer remedies and supplements

Bromelain

Bromelain is a natural enzyme found in pineapples.

A small study in Germany found that it might help to boost the immune system. This can help to control infections. More recent studies show the benefit of enzyme therapy, including bromelain. It can help to control symptoms of cancer and its treatment.

The studies were in breast and bowel cancer patients. Those taking enzymes had less sickness, loss of appetite, bowel problems and tiredness. The other group of people in the study had standard treatment.

Further research may show whether bromelain can play a role in treating cancer. It might improve survival as well as help to control symptoms.

Essiac

Essiac is a herbal remedy believed to originate from the Ojibwa, a native Canadian tribe. It is made of 4 herbs that grow in the wilderness of Ontario, Canada.

 A Canadian nurse called Renee Caisse publicised it first. She named the remedy after herself. Essiac is her surname spelt backwards. A commercial company now owns it. Essiac is the registered trademark of Essiac Products Inc.

Essiac is a mixture of roots, bark and leaves. It also includes burdock, sheep's sorrel and slippery elm. You boil the mixture and drink the brown liquid that forms.

It claims to be a miracle cure for cancer. There is no evidence that it cures cancer or helps to control symptoms.

Laetrile

Laetrile is also known as amygdalin or vitamin B17.

It is found in apricot pips and bitter almonds. Some people believe that it can cure cancer. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Shark cartilage

Shark cartilage is sold as a food supplement, not as a drug.

There is no evidence that it is any help at all in treating cancer, or any other medical condition.

Last reviewed: 
11 Oct 2017
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd Edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009
    ISBN: 0944235719

  • Use of complementary and alternative medicine in patients with cancer: a UK survey
    J Scott and others
    European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2005

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