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Cancer Patient's Misled Hope May Have Led to His Death

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Dec. 4, 2000 -- If you were to type the words "cancer and cure" into just about any Internet search engine, you will get upwards of 3,000 hits touting such unproven remedies as shark cartilage and broccoli sprout concentrate capsules alongside more conventional cancer treatments.

In the December issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers report the case of a 55-year-old man with cancer of the sinuses who died presumably as a result of kidney and liver failure after self-treating his cancer with hydrazine sulfate pills bought off the Net.

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Hydrazine sulfate has been studied as a treatment for cancer for more than 30 years. It may reduce the severe weight loss and muscle loss that can accompany cancer. It has, however, never been studied as treatment for this type of sinus cancer.

This man refused to undergo surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy -- all of which were offered as potential treatments by doctors. He had taken 180 grams per day of hydrazine sulfate for about four months when he developed an itchy rash, yellow discoloration of the skin, and fatigue.

Researchers found no cause for the kidney and liver failure besides the use of these pills. The chemical in these pills has been shown to be toxic to the liver and kidneys in animal studies, but there have been few reports of such toxicity in humans.

"This case graphically illustrates the potential danger of therapies purchased online. As promoted by a popular web site claiming that the drug has 'virtually no significant untoward side effects,' the appeal of hydrazine sulfate as a simple, cheap, and easy-to-take treatment for cancer is understandable," concludes chief researcher Mark I. Hainer, DO, a physician in the Moncrief Army Community Hospital in Fort Jackson, S.C.

Exactly how many cancer patients turn to alternative therapies in addition to or in place of more conventional treatments is unknown. One large-scale study found that 9% of U.S. cancer patients report that they have tried some type of alternative and complementary therapy.

"Unfortunately, cancer patients are much more susceptible to the lore of unproven remedies since the specter of chemotherapy, surgery, and poor prognosis makes them vulnerable" to quacks, Gilbert Ross, MD, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health in New York, tells WebMD. "Various peddlers of medicinals will seize upon the 'grasping at any straw' approach of these patients [and] the worst thing that can happen is that a patient who has a potentially treatable or curable condition will delay care while hoping for supplements to work," Ross says.

"People tend to place a lot of store in natural remedies, but something that is natural is not necessarily safe," he tells WebMD. "People should be getting cared for by a trained medical expert rather than relying upon pitches from advertisers or clerks in health food stores."

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