Posts promote unproven cancer remedies
Cancer patients have long turned to alternative and supplementary treatments – but along with them comes the risk of ineffective, and potentially dangerous, bunk cures.
These were on display on social media this week in widely shared posts that falsely suggested apricot pits, baking soda, a sugar-free diet or hot water with lemon would magically eradicate the disease.
Medical experts warn that while alternative treatments can play a role in cancer care, using them inappropriately or instead of conventional care can be harmful. The FDA on its website warns against unproven cancer treatments, and advises patients to discuss cancer treatment options with a licensed health care provider.
Here’s a look at the facts:
CLAIM: Vitamin B17, found in apricot pits, kills cancer cells.
THE FACTS: This isn’t supported by evidence. Though the naturally occurring chemical compound amygdalin, sometimes referred to as “vitamin B17,” has historically been proposed as an alternative cancer treatment, clinical research hasn’t shown it having any benefit, according to experts and the National Cancer Institute.
Nor has a synthetic version called Laetrile proved effective at reducing tumor size or slowing tumor growth, said Dr. Dawn Mussallem, a cancer survivor and physician at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center. On the contrary, the compound transformed into cyanide in the bodies of some patients, posing a risk of cyanide poisoning.
“Early studies of Laetrile in laboratory animals did not reduce tumor size or slow tumor growth and in cancer patients using amygdalin did not have any benefits; however, some showed cyanide toxicity,” Mussallem wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
The National Cancer Institute’s website adds that “anecdotal reports and case reports have not shown laetrile to be an effective treatment for cancer.”
The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved Laetrile as a cancer drug, and has banned its sale in interstate commerce. The product is still available in other countries.
“Serious side effects have been reported with use of amygdalin or apricot kernels including nausea and vomiting, neuropathy, liver damage, confusion, coma, and even death,” said Mussallem.
While there remains interest in studying amygdalin, she said cancer patients should only use it as part of a clinical trial at a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.
CLAIM: Baking soda is a “dirt cheap cure” for cancer.
THE FACTS: That’s misleading. While some studies and clinical trials have looked into the effects of baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, on cancer, there’s “limited evidence to date” that it has any effect, said Mussallem.
One study, for example, found that water infused with baking soda activated breast and colon cells in mice, potentially making them more sensitive to chemotherapy.
Another clinical trial looked at making the diets of pancreas cancer patients more alkaline using plant-based foods and sodium bicarbonate, finding it may help chemotherapy be more effective. But “larger studies are warranted,” Mussallem said.
The idea that baking soda could have an effect on cancer comes from the idea that the pH of tumors differs from other body cells, according to Tim Rebbeck, a professor of medical oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“The state of pH, and things like that, are interesting features of cancer, but there’s no evidence that changing that pH by baking soda or anything else will impact cancer cure,” Rebbeck said in an interview.
Sodium bicarbonate is generally considered safe but it can be toxic when consumed in large amounts, according to the National Capital Poison Center.
CLAIM: You can “starve” cancer and heal it by eating a sugar-free diet.
THE FACTS: That’s false. Reducing sugar intake is a good idea for general health, but there’s no evidence to suggest it will cure cancer.
It’s true that there are indirect benefits of reducing sugar intake on cancer. For example, obesity is linked to higher risks of cancer, and higher sugar intake can contribute to higher caloric intake, which can lead to obesity, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
It’s also true that all cells, including cancer cells, need sugar to survive and function, according to Rebbeck.
However, there’s no evidence that cancer patients can selectively “starve” cancer cells of sugar without affecting other cells that we need to function, Rebbeck said.
Plus, the body produces its own glucose if sugar from dietary intake gets too low, so dietary changes alone wouldn’t completely starve cells of sugar, Memorial Sloan Kettering explained on its website.
CLAIM: Hot lemon water kills cancer cells.
THE FACTS: There’s no scientific basis for this claim, according to Mussallem.
“Neither hot water, nor lemon have proven anti-cancer action,” she said.
While lab studies have shown citrus fruits may have some anti-cancer properties, no reputable human studies have shown they can cure cancer, she added.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.