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Are Alternative Medicines for Cancer Modern Day Snake Oils?

By Joanne Intile    May 16, 2016 / (4) comments

Have you ever heard of snake oil? It's an expression generally reserved for unproven remedies for various ailments or maladies, but is also often used to describe any product with questionable or unverifiable benefit.


Chinese workers, building the First Transcontinental Railroad in the mid-19th century, used snake oil to treat the painful inflammatory joint conditions resulting from their labors.


The workers began sharing the tonic with their American counterparts, who marveled at the positive effects it had on ailments such as arthritis and bursitis. Rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that are now known to possess anti-inflammatory properties, Chinese snake oil likely provided some comfort for workers experiencing job-related soreness and swelling.


Looking to capitalize on the financial gain, American “healers” gave their Chinese counterparts a bad name when they developed their own “snake oil” concoctions, which they claimed provided equal benefits to the Chinese remedies, yet lacked the necessary ingredients.


Over time, the term “snake oil” has become synonymous with substances whose ingredients are considered proprietary and marketed to provide a miraculous cure-all for a variety of maladies. Unfortunately, I can’t help but think about the phrase when pet owners ask me about complementary or alternative medicine treatment options for pets with cancer.


Many owners discover information which suggests the beneficial effects of various herbs, anti-oxidants, “immune boosting treatments,” and dietary supplements via searching the internet.


The more common products owners will inquire about include Tumexal, Apocaps, K9 Immunity, K9 Transfer factor, coconut oil, turmeric, essiac tea, and wormwood products (Artemisinin). A primary appeal is these substances are touted as “natural” and “non-toxic,” making their usage relatively inarguable.


What most owners fail to recognize is that supplements and herbal products are not subject to the same regulations by the FDA that prescription drugs are. Owners are also unaware that carefully worded claims to efficacy are not backed up by scientific research in the vast majority of cases, despite the plethora of supportive testimonials listed on product inserts or on websites.


One of the most popular products I’m asked about is K9 Immunity, a dietary supplement manufactured by Aloha Medicinals, reportedly “the industry’s leading company in the cultivation of medicinal mushroom species.” The product’s website includes several impressive logos: USDA organic, Quality Assurance International Certified Organic, and even one for the Food and Drug Association (FDA) as well as sweeping statements related to an ability to “strengthen and balance your dog’s immune system so the body recognizes and destroys damaged cells” and an assurance that the product “has no known side effects.”


This latter statement is my biggest concern with the animal supplement industry; the lure of alternative and complementary options centering on the ideology that these options are benign. Countless times, owners mistakenly assume these products have undergone testing to determine purity, safety, and efficacy. Despite the lack of specific data proving these products are bioavailable, safe, and/or effective in pets (other than what is put forth on their respective websites), owners elect such treatments.


With minimal probing, I discovered a warning letter from the FDA addressed to Aloha Medicinal dated 4/6/10 outlining numerous violations the company made regarding potential beneficial claims related to several of their manufactured products. Yes, this example is out dated; however smart owners have to consider what it means.


The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is the organization tasked with protecting, promoting, and advancing a strong, unified veterinary profession that meets the needs of society. Within their code of ethics you will find the following statement:


“It is unethical for veterinarians to promote, sell, prescribe, dispense, or use secret remedies or any other product for which they do not know the ingredients.”


This simple sentence provides me with the entire pause I need when it comes to the owner asking whether or not a particular supplement would help their pet. I cannot, and I will not, promote such a thing until the data tells me to do so.


My concern is that “alternative” products are marketed as panaceas. We cannot accurately report efficacy because the substances were never scrutinized in any sort of clinical trials (despite the hundreds to thousands of animals they are stated to be helpful for); it’s all anecdotes and testimonials.


I believe many of the companies marketing these supplements are preying on the emotions of owners who are desperate for a shred of hope. This isn’t a new concept, the internet just makes it easier for them to do so.


What is often most difficult for owners to understand is that words like “miraculous” play no role in medicine. I’m not arguing against the existence of outliers—there will always be patients who live longer than we expect. Conversely, there will be many who succumb to disease before their time. However, products should refrain from including unrealistic claims and using words such as “cure” or “prevent.” Likewise, they shouldn’t only report testimonials and should offer scientific data supporting their assertions.


Complementary treatments work alongside conventional ones, whereas alternative treatments act as a substitute for them. I adhere to the ideology that there is no alternative medicine. “Alternative medicine” that works is called medicine, period.


Comments  4

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  • Keeping My Family Healthy
    05/27/2016 02:33pm

    In November 2013 my cat Cochise was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma. He had a lump half-way down his back next to his spine and one on his forehead just above and between his eyes. Surgery successfully removed the cancer from his back, but my Vet could not remove all of the cancerous tissue on his forehead. By March of 2014 the tumor on Cochise’s forehead started growing. A second surgery, again, removed most, but not all of the tumor. There was not enough healthy tissue/skin to perform a third surgery. My Vet and I decided to refer to a traditional and holistic veterinarian, who, after examination and discussion of options, started Cochise on Wei Qi Booster Powder and Stasis Breaker Powder (Chinese remedies). With this treatment, the lump on Cochise’s forehead, not only stopped growing, but actually reduced in size. Today, at almost 11 years of age, Cochise is a very active, fit, and happy cat. He shows no sign of slowing down. In March of this year an ultrasound showed that my dog Spirit had a chemodectoma tumor on his heart. The specialist said it was cancer. With no traditional treatment options possible, I again went to the traditional/holistic Vet for help. After examination, she prescribed Wei Qi Booster and Stasis Breaker teapills and neoplasine. Spirit refused to take the neoplasine, so I discontinued it. He remains on the teapills. After some research on my part, I discussed with my Vet whether or not Spirit actually had cancer, as the research said chemodectoma tumors were usually benign. (No biopsy is possible at this point.) Regardless, a tumor in such a position is still of grave concern and with a poor prognosis. After two and a half months of alternative treatment, Spirit is still his active self and shows a decreased occurrence of gagging fits (a possible side effect of the tumor). I was told he may only have months left. We shall see. Until then, I will utilize all accepted options – both conventional and holistic – to keep my family healthy. NOTE: The Chinese remedies I am using, while considered alternative treatments to traditional medicines, are available only through prescription by a certified Veterinarian.

  • I call it "Alternative"
    05/27/2016 03:02pm

    I have been using herb remedies and homeopathy for twenty or more years now because I do not like the harsh side effects of traditional treatment. I have successfully treated mange, gangrene, cystitis, abscesses, pneumonia, jaundice, and other health problems with my cats, dogs and myself, because traditional medicine and practice did nothing for me or my pets. I wish[u] all[/u] physicians were more open minded to holistic remedies and even trained to be able to use these methods. It was not some guy in his garage that came up with the idea that homeopathy works, it was Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician. I guess he did not like the side effects of traditional medicine either.

  • Alternative medicine
    05/27/2016 05:12pm

    We’ve been seeing a holistic vet who used herbs and acupuncture for about 10 years. We had success with many of the things you mentioned (k9-immunity, transfer factor, artemisinin, etc) When he retired, I couldn’t find another alternative vet so it was back to the traditional vet. Then last year my 7 yr old dog was diagnosed with bone cancer in his head and jaw. After surgery to remove teeth – the bone was soft and mushy, I put him on Dr Singh’s (researcher from U of W who worked with Dr Lei the discoverer of killing cancer cells with artemisinin while leaving healthy cells alone) artemix/butyrex/C/E/D3 plan. He said the pain would subside in less than a week. It seemed to and he was doing great playing and acting goofy for a few months. Then he hit his head where the bone was soft; it caved in. Although he didn’t act like he was in pain, the injury looked like he was in pain so I gave him the “approved” pain medication tramadol at the prescribed dose. He was dead in a week. I later found he had every ‘side effect’ listed for the drug. If I had known this, I could have given him active charcoal to try to clear it out of his system. His last days were spent having seizures seconds apart, one after the other, they caused him to bite off part of his tongue and lip, he couldn’t walk or even stand from the narcotic effect, he was severely constipated – he kept eating while seizing with food falling out of his mouth and biting his lip, but nothing was coming out and he couldn’t stand up to go if he could go. He gained 15-20 lbs that last week because of constipation. It was a horrible end of his life. After that I decided I will NEVER again use traditional medicine. So in when my 15 yr old got sick thankfully another traditional vet referred me to a traditional/alternative vet – you decide which way you want to go or a combo of the 2. My dog was at deaths door on Dec 1. He couldn’t walk and appeared disoriented. His eyes were glassy and his belly was extended. He was diagnosed with cushings and had severely high liver and kidney numbers. Vet also found 2 tumors (1 in the heart and one under the spine) that he believed metastasized from a melanoma previously removed. He immediately put him on Chinese Stasis Breaker for the tumors, Denamarin (which is mostly samE and some milk thistle), liquid hepato, chicken flavor – which is milk thistle and B’s (my dog refused this because it tastes so bitter, so I use b50 complex and Marin which is milk thistle, E, and zinc – the counterpart to denamarin) all for the liver, azodyl (which I just use a 150 billion probiotic for health food store instead) and electrolyte subq fluids for the kidneys. He also said I could give him these other items and I do: artemisinin/artemethur/butyrex/C/E and K9 immunity/ transfer factor all for tumors, Wei Qi Booster for energy, Stasis Clear for leg pain and strength, Synflex and fish and krill oils for joints, Cortiquel for cushings disease, choline/inositol because dogs need choline and HempRx in case he has any pain. He is also on home prepared food: ½ C protein ¼ C pureed veg/fruit “4 times/day” PLUS most important for homemade food – calcium (powdered egg shells) to counteract the high phosphorous in meat. Because he’s in kidney failure the calcium dose is double the normal dose. Within 2 or 3 weeks he was walking again, eating great and seems to be feeling ok considering the problems, and is in good spirits. So as I see it “traditional” medicine killed my dog last year and alternative medicine saved another this year.

  • Staggering logic failure
    12/26/2016 06:19pm

    I created a PetMD account just so I could make this comment. To quote from above:

    “It is unethical for veterinarians to promote, sell, prescribe, dispense, or use secret remedies or any other product for which they do not know the ingredients.”

    This simple sentence provides me with the entire pause I need when it comes to the owner asking whether or not a particular supplement would help their pet. I cannot, and I will not, promote such a thing until the data tells me to do so.

    ---- This is a total failure of basic reading comprehension and logic. The AVMA statement doesn't say ANYTHING about requiring "data" before recommending a specific treatment. All it says is that practitioners must know the ingredients.