Stories abound of celebrities who turn to alternative and complementary treatments for any number of ailments. Best-known are those among the rich and famous who have faced a cancer diagnosis and chose treatment beyond the pale of conventional medicine.
Among those who have tried alternative protocols include actors, presidents, and technology geniuses. As with any cancer treatment – conventional or alternative – there are no guarantees, but it does raise the interesting question of why. Why, with advances in conventional medical technology, would those with the most exceptional healthcare access choose to look outside the box?
What's interesting is how this may or may not have influenced conventional medicine to begin rethinking how they view the treatment of cancer. For instance, an industry that used to destroy the immune system with chemotherapy now recognizes that building the immune system and overall health aids in the efficacy of conventional treatments.
In more recent years, it's come to replace the old methods, as was the case with President Jimmy Carter. His melanoma was treated exclusively with immunotherapy-, an approach holistic medicine has been touting for years.
Diagnosis: breast cancer
Treatment: conventional and alternative medicine
Outcome: 30-year survivor
The co-star opposite John Travolta in the musical Grease has been battling breast cancer for nearly 30 years. During those three decades, she's learned not to rely solely on the advice and treatments of conventional medicine.
Diagnosed in 1992, Newton-John had the entire arsenal of cancer assault mechanisms known to conventional medicine – mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy. Her cancer returned twice since, and she has decided against chemotherapy. And while Newton-John has incorporated radiation into her regimen, she's also emphasized a more holistic approach to what is now Stage IV cancer. By integrating holistic medicine practices, she's helped strengthen immunity, fight pain, and, she hopes, kill cancer.
Newton-John has since opened the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Heidelberg, Australia. Patients receive an integrative approach to cancer treatment that incorporates conventional treatment with holistic practices.
Diagnosis: uterine cancer
Treatment: radical hysterectomy combined with an integrative approach
The Jewish-American actress with the distinctive voice is famous twice: first for her semi-autobiographical show The Nanny and then for her resolute response to a cancer diagnosis.
During her final season of The Nanny in 1999, Drescher was beginning a new season of life and starting a new journey with her health.
Eventually recognized by doctors as uterine cancer, her condition was addressed as peri-menopausal. This misdiagnosis delayed the treatment she needed while subjecting her body to treatments she did not need.
When she finally emerged from this long dark period of her life – which included a radical hysterectomy – Drescher found herself with a story to tell and a movement to lead. Her experience led to writing a book, Cancer Schmancer, and launching a foundation by the same name.
Her celebrity became her platform not to raise money for foundations or institutions but rather to encourage reform in the way American's treated their health. She's using her platform to help people battle cancer before it begins by addressing lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, stress level, etc.
She supports a holistic view of medical care, strengthening the body to fight for itself rather than relying solely on what she calls the American “sick care system.”
Diagnosis: breast cancer
Treatment: lumpectomy, radiation, complementary/alternative medicine
Following Suzanne Somers' breast cancer diagnosis in 2001, she addressed it the way most women do – surgery to remove tumors and radiation to zap the remaining cancer cells. But she decided against chemotherapy.
Instead of decimating her immune system, she decided to strengthen her body's natural defenses. The approach allowed her to weaken and kill cancer cells lurking in the shadows. She turned to a little-known drug called Iscador, a mistletoe extract that's shown in studies to kill cancer and bolster immunities.
Through the years since her diagnosis, the Three's Company star has interviewed dozens of patients and doctors about cancer prevention through diet, detox, and natural cancer treatment protocols. She details her findings in the book Knock Out.
Diagnosis: skin cancer and colon cancer
Treatment: surgery plus laetrile supplementation and potential oxygen therapy
Outcome: full recovery; died of pneumonia in 2004
The 40th President of the United States was famously diagnosed with bouts of skin cancer, which he had surgically removed. And then, amid The Cold War tensions between the United States and Russia, President Reagan faced a threat from the inside. Inside his colon. Doctors identified and removed a cancerous polyp to prevent spread.
So just weeks into his second term, surgeons resected two feet of The Gipper's large intestine. What isn't as widely known about the POTUS is that he decided against chemotherapy or radiation.
There are reports that Reagan received intravenous treatments of laetrile, a compound also known as Amygdalin found in the seeds of apricots and other fruits. Reagan also may have received oxygen therapy.
In 2015 Jimmy Carter sought treatment for metastatic melanoma using immune mechanisms that the natural cancer treatment community has highlighted for decades.
Utilizing the immunotherapy drug Keytruda, doctors made Carter's natural immune defenses “smarter” and more precise in attacking the abnormal cell growth in his brain and liver. Only a handful of years ago, conventional medicine would have performed a widespread annihilation of Carter's immune system while trying to wipe out cancer with chemical warfare and radiation.
At 91 years old, Carter likely would not have even survived conventional cancer treatment – let alone cancer he was trying to treat. Now the mainstream medical community is developing and patenting drugs to strengthen and enhance the immune system. These modalities allow the body to fight without chemicals and procedures that would weaken its natural defenses.
Natural formulations like Beta 1 3D Beta Glucan and other natural immune-enhancing supplements have worked effectively by similarly helping the immune system target foreign bodies, including abnormal cell growth.
Immunotherapy in modern oncology is an encouraging development that affirms at least some practices of holistic medicine. The approach signals a turning point for conventional methods that historically have been governed more by industrial modalities than by health-focused innovation.
Diagnosis: prostate cancer
The Chong half of the 1970s comedy duo Cheech & Chong, Tommy Chong, says prison gave him prostate cancer, and his reason for jail time, in part, provided what he has called the cure. In 2003 he served 9 months for selling pot pipes and says he can trace his slow-growing prostate cancer to his time in prison.
“I was totally healthy when I went in jail … and then while I was in jail, I was clean as a whistle, and I started having problems with my prostate,” he said in an interview with CNN. “So, yeah, I think I got [cancer] there.”
When he was diagnosed with the disease several years later, the then 74-year-old said he had given up smoking marijuana. But then he started using the plant in the form of suppositories to “treat” his cancer.
Whatever Chong's motive in utilizing cannabis during his battle with cancer, the actor might have benefited himself in the fight. Some studies have shown that cannabinoids, chemicals found in cannabis, might program-specific prostate cancer cells to stop growing and multiplying.
Diagnosis: pancreatic cancer
Treatment: lifestyle and diet changes, surgery, cutting-edge DNA sequencing
Outcome: survived for 8 years; died in 2011.
The illustrious mind behind Apple Inc. is perhaps viewed with the most medical suspicion among the many celebrities to address their cancer diagnosis with unconventional treatments.
Jobs undoubtedly is among the best known of these celebrities, in part because of the lengthy Walter Isaacson biography that detailed Jobs' diagnosis, subsequent treatment plans, and final years of life. And because of his illness, he also very visibly stepped down from his responsibilities as CEO of the most innovative tech company in history.
So why would this technological genius eschew the medical technology available at the time to treat him? As he did with most areas of his life, Steve Jobs approached his diet and health in somewhat quirky ways. While working at Atari, for instance, he reportedly denounced daily showers and deodorant, believing that his diet would keep him from needing those conventional hygiene regimens.
So in 2003, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while being scanned for kidney stones, he followed the path he'd followed most of his life: the road less traveled. Instead of pursuing the conventional route of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, Jobs attacked his diagnosis by strengthening his body's ability to fight cancer. But this was not a haphazard decision. After all, the rare form of pancreatic cancer – islet cell carcinoma – was slow-growing and highly treatable.
He consulted with some of the best medical minds available. Still, he concluded that he would aggressively change his lifestyle instead of being cut open or zapped. About a recommended surgical procedure, he told one confidante: “I really didn't want them to open up my body.”
It's easy to suggest that Jobs was just stubborn in his initial refusal of conventional medical treatments. His stubbornness and individuality branched into every decision he made. He also weighed the detriment of gambling with chemicals and surgery and the limits they might place on his ability to perform at optimal levels for whatever years he had left.
There are few details available about exactly what Jobs did during the months that he treated his cancer. He was a relatively private man, but a few things are clear.
The lifelong adherent to a mostly plant-based diet became even more restrictive in his veganism and added to this discipline a regular intake of herbs, botanicals, and juices. He visited acupuncturists and also explored the spiritual side of physical healing.
Nine months into this treatment, a scan revealed his tumor had grown and had likely moved outside the pancreas. Perhaps he was disappointed, but he wasn't defeated. He finally went in for the recommended surgery to have the tumor removed. Then he turned his attention and vast resources to pursuing cutting-edge, experimental treatments through MIT and Harvard. Among the testing was genetic sequencing of the tumor to treat it at the molecular level.
“I'm either going to be one of the first to be able to outrun cancer like this, or I'm going to be one of the last to die from it,” Jobs told Isaacson in early 2011. “Either among the first to make it to share or the last to get dumped.”
Coretta Scott King
Diagnosis: ovarian cancer
Treatment: sought alternative treatment in Mexico
Outcome: died in 2005
After fighting alongside husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for civil rights, Coretta Scott King faced a battle with ovarian cancer in 2005. The diagnosis came while recovering from a stroke.
Doctors in the United States gave her very little hope for successful treatment through conventional medicine. So, she traveled to a clinic in Mexico, hoping alternative medical options might provide more promise.
Sadly, Mrs. King was unable to make it to the treatment given the advanced stage of her diagnosis and other health issues. She passed away at the clinic in 2005.
Treatment: holistic treatment, immunotherapy, surgery
Outcome: died from pulmonary embolism
After making his film debut in 1953, Hollywood Legend Steve McQueen would go on to star in dozens of successful films and television shows. For more than two decades, McQueen made a name for himself as a rugged, tough guy on screen and in the Hollywood hills.
In 1979, doctors detected a cancerous mass on his lungs. McQueen's military career exposed him to asbestos, and a reported two-pack-per-day cigarette habit contributed to the mesothelioma that set up in his lungs.
McQueen and his medical team determined no conventional medical intervention could treat his cancer. He sought the opinion of alternative medicine practitioners, including a clinic in Juarez, Mexico.
At the clinic, he was on a regimen of organic foods, high doses of vitamins, and intramuscular injection of animal cells. These increased the production of interferon, a protein that enables the body's natural defenses to ward off viruses and, presumably, fight cancer.
Already weak from aggressive cancer, McQueen was recovering after surgery to remove a cancerous mass pressing on his lungs. He suffered an embolism that took his life less than one year after diagnosis.
Diagnosis: anal cancer
Treatment: a variety of conventional and alternative treatments
Outcome: short remission but eventual death in 2009
In 2006 the Charlie's Angels star was diagnosed with Anal Cancer, a form of cancer caused by an anal infection of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus). Fawcett's cancer went into remission following conventional treatment. But then cancer returned, so she turned to alternative therapies available in Germany.
Trying to avoid surgery that would require the use of a colostomy bag, she made six trips to Germany for treatments. Unfortunately, the disease spread to her liver during this time, and treatments became ineffective. She died of cancer in 2009.
Diagnosis: cancer and other health issues
Treatment: aggressive holistic diet and removal of toxins
Outcome: cancer survivor of more than 30 years
More than 30 years ago, Sharyn Wynters' life took a sharp turn after receiving some dire news about her health. She'd been Miss Pennsylvania, played a role in the original Batman television series, and was a successful fashion model. But then, in her 20s and with her career on the rise, she became a cancer patient.
Doctors painted a grim portrait of her future as they described the disease. Wynters, however, did not take this news with resignation. Instead, the career detour became a destination.
Instead of taking the absolute word of conventional medicine, Wynters was empowered to take control of the diagnosis. She began removing toxins from her household, cosmetics, clothing, foods, and even from the fillings in her teeth. Through whole-food and toxin-free living, Wynters saw her health slowly improve as she held cancer at bay.
During the course of recovery, she was immersed in the study of complementary medicine and became a practitioner herself, empowering others to take control of their health.
Diagnosis: Hodgkin's lymphoma 2010
Treatment: a vegan diet, aggressive lifestyle changes, complementary medicine
Outcome: survivor of more than a decade
At the height of her career, actress Lourdes Reynolds already had appeared in multiple television series and had recently landed an acting role on the CBS series Without a Trace. But in 2010, she also was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
She was given two options by her doctors: A) do nothing and let the cancer run its course or B) submit to conventional treatments that could include chemotherapy or radiation. Reynolds decided to pursue her own option: C) strengthen her own body’s ability to fight back by changing her lifestyle and her diet.
But instead of battling cancer behind the scenes and behind closed doors, Reynolds and her husband decided this battle was important to show the world, documenting step by step along the way of her treatment and recovery. The documentaries Create Option C and Option C chronicle Reynolds' life before cancer and the bold decision to forego conventional medicine.
She armed herself with knowledge about gene expressions, the mechanisms by which cancer “turns on.” She discovered research about the relationship between environment, diet, and lifestyle and the activation of certain gene expressions that produce abnormal cell growth. Through her vegan diet and a number of other radical changes in her day to day living, Reynolds has been successful in warding off what was once a death sentence.
Diagnosis: prostate cancer
Treatment: holistic medicine and dietary modifications
Outcome: lived for 10 years after diagnosis
A popular radio talkshow host of more than four decades, Don Imus was no stranger to controversy. And when diagnosed with Stage II prostate cancer in 2009, he embraced the controversy of a treatment regimen that veered away from conventional radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery in favor of a holistic approach.
Imus had struggled with alcoholism and had, in his final years, also suffered from emphysema. He had adopted a vegetarian diet in the early 1990s. Following his cancer diagnosis, he added such dietary items as habanero peppers and Japanese soy supplements.
For more than a decade Imus and his wife had hosted children with cancer at their New Mexico ranch, where these kids did manual labor and ultimately competed in a rodeo. Perhaps he decided that he’d rather fight cancer on his own terms – the way one might tame a horse, an animal Imus had both cherished and been injured by through the years. After 10 years, though, Imus succumbed to cancer in combination with other health issues.