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Alternative cancer diets

Information on some popular alternative therapies that some claim can help control or cure nutritional problems, or even the cancer itself.

Complementary and alternative therapies

People with cancer may try complementary or alternative therapies to try to help with nutritional problems.

Like most people who work in cancer care, we know that people can find complementary therapies helpful. These are therapies that can be used alongside conventional medical treatment. Many people benefit from these by having a bit of 'me' time and improving their sense of wellbeing and ability to cope with their situation.

Our advice

We don't recommend alternative therapies in place of conventional medical therapy because there is little (if any) scientific or medical evidence to back up the claims that are made.

If you have cancer, using these unproven methods instead of conventional medical treatment can make you very ill. Talk to your own specialist about any alternative or complementary therapies that you want to try.

Some of these are very safe, work well and can be used in combination with standard treatments.

For example, taking ginger or practicing relaxation techniques such as visualisation and hypnotherapy.

Or acupuncture can help control nausea, particularly when used in combination with anti sickness drugs.

Being cautious

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

Some alternative therapists may claim to be able to cure your cancer or its symptoms with their treatments, even if conventional medical treatments have not been successful. Reputable therapists won't make these claims.

There are hundreds of other types of alternative therapies not covered in this section. 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

If you try any alternative diet or nutritional supplement, it is important to continue to eat a well balanced diet. It is harmful to deprive yourself of the protein, carbohydrates (including sugars) and fats that your body needs 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. Or look on the organisations page for more information on who can provide for help and support about cancer and diet.

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 very disciplined type of therapy. It involves giving yourself coffee enemas and eating lots of raw fruit and vegetables and their juices as well as taking supplements.

People who promote this therapy claim that it cleanses your body and stimulates your metabolism. Yet there is no scientific evidence that any of this is true.

In fact, Gerson therapy can be harmful, particularly if you 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.

Like Gerson therapy, there is no scientific evidence that a macrobiotic diet can treat or control the symptoms of cancer.

Although the foods involved are healthy, the diet can lead to poor nutrition and an imbalance of nutrients, unless it is carefully planned.

Other cancer remedies and supplements

Bromelain

Bromelain is a natural enzyme found in pineapples.

A small clinical study in Germany recently found that bromelain might help boost the immune system and help control infections. More recent German studies show that enzyme therapy, including bromelain can help to control symptoms of both cancer and cancer treatment.

The studies included breast and bowel cancer patients. Those taking the enzymes had less sickness, loss of appetite, bowel problems and tiredness than those who just had standard treatment.

Further research may show whether bromelain can play a role in treating cancer and improve survival as well as helping 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.

It was first publicised by a Canadian nurse called Renee Caisse. She named the remedy after herself - 'essiac' is her surname spelled backwards. Essiac is now owned by a commercial company and their lawyers require us to say that "Essiac is the registered trademark of Essiac Products Inc" whenever we mention it.

Essiac is a mixture of roots, bark and leaves, including burdock, sheep's sorrel and slippery elm. The mixture is boiled and you drink the brown liquid that forms.

It is claimed to be a miracle cure for cancer but there is no evidence that it cures cancer or helps to control symptoms.

Laetrile

This is also known as amygdalin or vitamin B17.

It is found in apricot pips and bitter almonds and has been described as a highly active compound that can cure cancer. Unfortunately this is simply 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: 
04 Jan 2017
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    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 A Scott et al.
    European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2005

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