Childhood Cancer

Alternative treatments can be defined as either treatments that are used in place of conventional medical treatments or treatments that may have unknown or adverse effects when used in addition to conventional treatments. Sometimes alternative treatments are illegal or unavailable in the United States or Canada, and patients travel to other countries to obtain them.

Alternative treatments are usually based on word-of-mouth endorsements, called anecdotal evidence. Medical therapy is based on scientific studies using data collected from large groups of patients. In treating cancer, these large clinical trials have resulted in increases in survival rates over the past 3 decades.

Many alternative treatments can help parents and children feel they are aiding the healing process. Even with a good prognosis for your child, it is difficult to ignore the advice of friends and relatives extolling the virtues of various alternative treatments. Parents just want to help their children in every way possible; they often feel helpless and agonize over the pain their child endures for many months or years while on conventional therapy.

However, it is extremely important that any alternative therapy that involves ingestion or injection into the body (e.g., herbs, vitamins, special diets, enemas) only be given with the neuro-oncologist’s knowledge. The neuro-oncologist’s involvement is necessary to prevent you from giving something to your child that could lessen the effectiveness of the conventional chemotherapy or cause additional toxicity. For instance, folic acid (a type of B vitamin) replaces methotrexate in cells and reduces or eliminates its effectiveness, allowing cancer cells to flourish. The neuro-oncologist will be much more knowledgeable about these potential conflicts than a parent, herbalist, or health food store salesperson.

If you want to evaluate claims made about alternative treatments, here are several ways to collect information:

  • Check the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to see if any scientific evidence or warnings exist about the treatment that interests you. This information is available online at
  • Contact your local American Cancer Society or Canadian Cancer Society’s division office and ask for information about the therapy you are considering. These organizations have compiled information about many therapies describing the treatment, its known risks, side effects, opinions of the medical establishment, and any lawsuits that have been filed in relation to the therapy. The American Cancer Society has an online database at with information about many alternative treatments.
  • Collect and study all available objective literature about the treatment. Ask the alternative treatment providers if they have treated other children with cancer, what results have been achieved, how these results have been documented, and where they have reported their results. Ask for the reports so your child’s doctor can review them.
  • Talk with other people who have gone through the treatment. Inquire about the training and experience of the person administering the treatment. Be sure to find out how much the therapy costs, because your insurance company may not pay for alternative treatments.
  • Beware of any practitioner who will give your child the alternative therapy only if you stop taking the child in for conventional treatments.
  • Never inject any alternative product into a central line. Children have developed life-threatening infections and have died from this.

Take all the information you gather to your child’s neuro-oncologist to discuss any positive or negative impacts the alternative treatment may have on your child’s current medical treatment. Do not give any alternative treatment or over-the-counter drugs to your child in secret. Some treatments prevent chemotherapy from killing cancer cells, and other substances, such as those containing aspirin or related compounds, can cause uncontrollable bleeding in children with low platelet counts.

At one point, we decided to try some alternative therapies with our son. Our plan was to use it in conjunction with his conventional treatment. I scheduled a meeting with his oncologist and discussed the alternatives with him. I wouldn’t dare attempt to start anything, not even vitamin supplements, without first talking it over with the doctor, because I was scared that I would cause my child more harm than good. I was grateful that the oncologist was willing to listen to what I had to say and offer his opinion.

We both agreed that the alternative therapy we had in mind wouldn’t do any damage or interfere with the chemotherapy my son was receiving. Two months later, we decided that it was doing absolutely nothing for him, so we stopped. I figured the money would be better spent at the toy store than on a useless therapy. I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. I’m much more skeptical now than I used to be. My new motto is “show me the proof.”


I gave my son echinacea when he received chemotherapy. I checked with his doctor first. He didn’t think it would hurt but didn’t think it would help, either. Still, all the nurses in emergency swore by the stuff. We got good results, too. We started the echinacea after lots of treatment, and it was the first time that he didn’t have to be readmitted 3 days after chemo for febrile neutropenia. I’m convinced that it helped him during the recovery period when his counts would bottom out.

If, after thorough investigation, you feel strongly in favor of using an alternative treatment in addition to conventional treatment and your child’s neuro-oncologist opposes it, listen to her reasons. If you disagree, get a second opinion from another oncology specialist. Remember, your child’s health should be everyone’s priority.


When Zack (age 6) was treated, he always developed a fever after chemotherapy. I could tell when his counts were dropping because the fever would start off low and go up to around 102°. When his fever went over 101°, the doctor would put him on IV antibiotics and draw blood cultures every day. His fevers usually started about 7 days after the first day of chemo. His counts would drop real fast. For us, it became normal. He’d also always need platelet and red blood cell transfusions after chemotherapy. It was a scary time but we became used to it.

I thank God daily for sustaining Zack this long. Yesterday was just a horrible day. But today I arose with positive thoughts. I will take care of my son and live life for we have been blessed to be his parents.