Homeopathy has been touted as one of the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches in the management of cancer, but it has not been proven to treat cancer. Homeopathic treatments may provide some relief from the side effects of conventional cancer treatments, although this has not been unequivocally proven either.
Homeopathic medicine (or homeopathy) is a type of alternative medicine based on a belief that an illness can be cured by ingesting a substance that is known to elicit symptoms typical of that very illness—a philosophy of “like cures like.” Homeopathic remedies are derived from plants, herbs, minerals, and animal products.
Complementary medicine (CM) is used by one third to one half of cancer patients throughout the world.
Homeopathic Remedies for Cancer
Homeopathic remedies are organic substances that have been so highly diluted that there are very few molecules of the original substance remaining.
For cancer, homeopathic practitioners aim to stimulate immunity, lessen pain, and improve energy and overall well-being, especially if a person is grappling with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation such as nausea, hot flashes, infections, and sores.
Homeopathic products are dosed by sugar pellets containing the diluted substance, and they are placed under the tongue or used as drops, tablets, gels, creams, and ointments. Treatments are tailored to individuals, so it’s common for two people with the same condition to receive different treatments.
Homeopathy may hold an allure for people hoping to avoid the side effects of conventional cancer treatment.
In a research review published in 2009, scientists examined eight studies using homeopathic remedies in the treatment of cancer treatment-related side effects. One suggested that Traumeel S (a mouth rinse containing several homeopathic medicines) may alleviate mouth sores caused by chemotherapy. However, the review’s authors also found that homeopathic remedies had no benefit over placebo in several of the studies.
In 2011, an observational study found that homeopathic treatments did improve the quality of life for some cancer patients. There also has been research suggesting that mistletoe, a semiparasitic evergreen shrub used in some homeopathic preparations, may help some cancer patients better tolerate chemotherapy.
Risks and Considerations
Homeopathic products are not evaluated for safety or effectiveness by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For this reason, it’s critical to consult your oncologist if you’re considering using homeopathy for cancer-related complications.
There is no evidence that homeopathics interfere with conventional treatments because there is hardly any substance in them. Nevertheless, homeopathics may do more harm than good if they delay the use of effective conventional therapies.
A study of cancer patients using alternative medicine in lieu of conventional cancer treatments found that after a median of 5 years, patients with breast or colorectal cancer were nearly five times as likely to die if they had used an alternative therapy as their initial treatment than if they had received conventional treatment.
Homeopathic treatments, which contain microscopic amounts of a substance are not the same as herbal remedies, which contain measurable amounts of a substance. Herbal remedies can interfere with the effectiveness of conventional treatments or potentially increase side effects. These include preparations containing grapefruit, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), or turmeric (Curcuma longa).
If you do want to include homeopathy or another type of CAM in your cancer treatment protocol, your oncologist should work in partnership with any alternative care doctor you see.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health offers these precautions
- Don’t substitute homeopathy for proven conventional care.
- Don’t postpone seeing a doctor while waiting to see if alternative cancer treatments work.
- Bring homeopathic products you are using to a doctor’s visit. Your healthcare provider can tell you whether they pose a risk of side effects or drug interactions.
- If you are pregnant or nursing, consult a physician before using any homeopathic product.
- Realize the use of medicinal plants in oncology is nothing to take lightly. Some herbs can be dangerous, even causing liver damage.
Based on rigorous human studies, it is known that there is no substitute for modern cancer treatment. However, there may be room in your treatment plan for alternative approaches, as long as:
- They complement and do not interfere with the effectiveness of your other therapies
- You work with a practitioner knowledgeable in their proper use
- You are open about these treatments with your entire medical team