What is the evidence?

Conventional cancer treatments have been through a research process to see whether they work and are safe. This is known as evidence-based medicine. New treatments are first tested in laboratories and then on large groups of people in clinical trials.

Clinical trials involving two groups of people provide the strongest evidence. One group is given the new treatment and the other group is given the existing standard treatment. The results in the two groups are compared to work out which treatment is better. If the new treatment works better than existing treatments, it may become the new standard treatment. This process provides the scientific evidence for the effectiveness and safety of the treatment.

While some complementary therapies are supported by strong evidence, others are not. As their use increases, many are now being scientifically tested to see whether they are safe for people with cancer, whether they reduce or improve specific symptoms to help people feel better during and after conventional treatment, and how they interact with conventional treatments.

Many alternative therapies and medicines have not been scientifically tested. Others have been tested and shown not to work or to be harmful to people with cancer. Some alternative practitioners promote their therapies and medicines as a cure for cancer, and encourage people to stop using conventional cancer treatment. If this is something you are considering, discuss this with your doctor first.

Alternative therapies can be expensive, and they are not covered by Medicare or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), a government-funded scheme that subsidises some prescription medicines. It is important to consider the cost of these therapies if you are thinking about using them.

Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies as a treatment for cancer. 

To find out more about clinical trials, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of Understanding Clinical Trials and Research or download a copy from this page.

Signs of unsafe therapies

Keep the following warning signs in mind if you are thinking about using an alternative therapy or medicine instead of conventional treatment or medicine:

  • The practitioner does not have a qualification from an accredited educational institution in the therapy they provide.
  • The practitioner is not registered with a governing body or a professional association.
  • The practitioner tells you that using conventional treatment or medicine will stop their therapy or remedy from working.
  • The practitioner asks you not to talk to your doctors about their treatment, or won’t tell you the ingredients that make up a herbal preparation they give you.
  • The practitioner claims that their treatment cures cancer and other illnesses.
  • The practitioner says there are clinical studies for the effectiveness of their remedy or therapy, but does not show you any articles that have appeared in reputable medical journals.
  • The treatment costs a lot of money or you need to pay in advance for several months’ supply of a remedy.
  • All potential side effects have not been explained.
  • You need to travel overseas to have the treatment.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) tracks health and medical scams in an effort to keep the public informed about which scams are in circulation. To find out more, visit scamwatch.gov.au or accc.gov.au.

This information was last reviewed in May 2018
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