Obtaining Credible Information About Alternative Cancer Therapies

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The August edition of Cancer MonthlyÂ?s free e-newsletter CancerWire focuses on what every cancer patient should know in order to obtain credible information about alternative cancer therapies.

When it comes to alternative therapies for cancer, the internet is a “mixed bag” filled with exaggerated claims, unreliable anecdotes, and some very credible reports. For the patient who has little time and who needs credible information now, sorting through this is a challenge.

There is, however, one resource that is arguably better than many others. Medline is the National Library of Medicine’s bibliographic database covering the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, the health care system, and the preclinical sciences. Medline contains over 12 million citations and abstracts (summaries of research articles) from more than 4,800 biomedical journals published in the United States and 70 other countries. Medline is accessible on the internet via PubMed, which was developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Simply type http://www.pubmed.gov in the browser. Through Medline one can see what has been published about alternative cancer therapies by scientists and researchers. For anyone trying to make an informed treatment decision, these studies are worth browsing.

For example, certain herbs have been used throughout history for the treatment of various cancers. Because natural substances are difficult to patent, drug companies will not invest money to research and develop these substances. Nonetheless, a handful of studies can be found for almost any herb, vitamin or other substance. Although these studies are obviously not the final word, they do provide clues about the potential efficacy of these agents in cancer. While most of these studies are pre-clinical (in test-tubes, animal models), some are clinical (in patients). Faced with the hyperbole on the internet and the skepticism of most orthodox doctors, these studies can also be used to facilitate objective discussions with one's physician.

There are three steps to accessing this information:

Step 1) Go to Medline http://www.pubmed.gov

Step 2) Run a search by placing terms like the name of the herb or vitamin and cancer. For example, “red clover and breast cancer” or “vitamin c and prostate cancer” or “carrots and lung cancer.” If nothing appears, try the Latin name.

Step 3) Understand what is being read. While it is advantageous to read the entire article (often available in a local medical library), abstracts of the article are a good place to begin. And while, there are many considerations in assessing an article’s reliability (i.e. journal, authors, conflicts of interest, size of study, etc.) for the purpose of getting started, one can begin by focusing on three key pieces of information:

1.    What substance was tested? It is important to know what was actually tested. For example, some studies do not use entire natural product, but only employ one or more chemical components that are isolated or synthesized. A problem with this approach is that all the different components may have a synergistic effect and administering one ingredient may not be a fair test of what the agent can really do in patients.

2.    Where was it tested? There are many ways a test can be performed. For example, preclinical testing can be performed in cancer cell cultures (in vitro) which are cultures of cancer cells taken from a patient. Or, it can be performed in a cell line (a cancer cell culture that has been grown and used for years or decades). Or, it can be performed in animals (with animal cancers or human cancers). Or, the test can be performed clinically by administering the agent to actual cancer patients. Of course, the last one would be the most accurate representation of whether the agent works in people.

3.    What was the outcome? Here, it is critical to understand what happened. Key terms to look for include apoptosis (this means the cancer cells committed cell suicide) anti-proliferation, and growth inhibition.

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Of course, none of this information in CancerWire is a substitute for professional medical advice, examination, diagnosis or treatment and you should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before starting any new treatment or making any changes to an existing treatment. No information contained in Cancer Monthly or CancerWire including the information above, should be used to diagnose, treat cure or prevent any disease without the supervision of a medical doctor.

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Michael Horwin