The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is actively engaged in identifying and developing more effective, less toxic cancer therapies. Advances in cancer treatment are made through clinical trials (treatment studies), in which patients are carefully monitored and the effects of the new therapy are documented thoroughly. The results of these studies are summarized in scientific presentations and publications, from which the data can be reviewed and discussed by other researchers. This critical analysis allows others to verify and expand upon the claims made by the developers of the therapy.

Many proponents of unconventional methods of cancer treatment make claims that are not or cannot be scientifically confirmed. They commonly present a treatment that has a very high degree of activity against cancers that are considered incurable; a treatment with few, if any, side effects; a treatment whose nature and exact contents are kept secret for fear of sabotage by the medical establishment. However, practitioners of unconventional treatments are held to the same research standards as those of any scientist: that a discovery be evaluated scientifically and reported in a timely and thorough fashion in the scientific literature so that others may learn of, evaluate, and critique the research results.

When scientific research shows that a new treatment method has promise, the method is evaluated in clinical trials with cancer patients. These studies are designed to answer scientific questions and to find out whether the new treatment is safe for patients and effective against the disease. The NCI booklet "What Are Clinical Trials All About?" provides further information about such studies. Patients interested in investigational treatment should ask their physicians to determine whether they are eligible for a clinical trial.

Patients and their families may wish to consider the following questions when making decisions about cancer treatment:

  • Has the treatment been evaluated in clinical trials? A reference librarian can help patients interested in a particular treatment find out whether it has been reported in reputable scientific journals
  • Do the practitioners of an approach claim that the medical community is trying to keep their cure from the public? No one genuinely committed to finding better ways to treat a disease would knowingly keep an effective treatment a secret or try to suppress such a treatment
  • Does the treatment rely on nutritional or diet therapy as its main focus? At this time, there is no known dietary cure for cancer. In other words, there is no evidence that diet alone can get rid of cancerous cells in the body
  • Do those who endorse the treatment claim that it is harmless and painless and that it produces no unpleasant side effects? Because treatments for cancer must be very powerful, they frequently have unpleasant side effects
  • Does the treatment have a "secret formula" that only a small group of practitioners can use? Scientists who believe they have developed an effective treatment routinely publish their results in reputable journals so they can be evaluated by other researchers.

The use of unconventional methods may result in the loss of valuable time and the opportunity to receive potentially effective therapy and consequently reduce a patient's chances for cure or control of cancer. For this reason, NCI strongly urges cancer patients to remain in the care of qualified, board- certified physicians who use accepted methods of treatment or who are participating in scientifically designed clinical trials. (Board certification is one way a practitioner demonstrates that he or she has had training in treating patients with cancer.) Often, it is appropriate for patients to consider investigational therapy. For such patients, clinical trials are a treatment option.

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*NCI released this statement in October 1992 .