Childhood Cancer

Childhood Cancer

Alternative treatments

Alternative treatments are 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 families travel to other countries to obtain them.

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

It is extremely important that any alternative therapy that involves ingestion or injection into the body (e.g., herbs, vitamins, oils, special diets, enemas) only be given with the oncologist’s knowledge. The 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 oncologist will be much more knowledgeable about these potential conflicts than a parent, herbalist, or health food store salesperson.

Never inject any alternative product into a central line. Children have developed life-threatening infections and have died from this.

If you want to evaluate claims made about alternative treatments, here are two ways to collect information from reliable sources:

•  Check the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to see whether any scientific evidence or warnings exist about the treatment that interests you. This information is available online at http://nccam.

•  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 that describe 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 with information about many alternative treatments.

•  Take all the information you gather to your child’s 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. If the alternative treatment is made from plant materials, it may contain bacteria or fungi that could make a child with low blood cell counts very ill.

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 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.