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

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD on December 04, 2000
4 min read

Dec. 4, 2000 -- If you were to type the words "cancerand 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.

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."

"Alternative therapies are not necessarily safer than conventional therapies and should be administered with medical supervision," says Martin Black, MD, a professor of medicine and pharmacology and the head of the Liver Unit at Temple University in Hospital in Philadelphia. Black, along with colleague Hamid Hussain, MD, penned an editorial accompanying the new report.

Calling the report "a timely warning," Black and Hussain write that "there seems to be little justification for the drug's easy availability and unsupervised use."

The use of this compound for cancer is "controversial. It may have helped a small number of patients, but the clinical trials have been unimpressive," he tells WebMD.

"Patients clearly should use the Internet to get better informed and they need to discuss the information that they get with a competent medical professional," Black says.

Even proponents of the use of hydrazine sulfate to treat cancer contend that it should never be used as a sole treatment or without the supervision of a health care professional.

That said, Robert Sorge, ND, a naturopathic doctor at the Abunda Life Medical Nutrition Testing Clinic in Asbury Park, N.J., says it's "highly unlikely" that the supplements were responsible for any patients death.

While hydrazine sulfate is not proven to be a cancer remedy, it has always been helpful at treating people with cancer-related weight and muscle loss, Sorge tells WebMD.

"About two-thirds of people who die from cancer" die from such weight loss, he says. "If we keep it in that realm, we are in good order," he says. Hydrazine sulfate may prevent these complications by somehow inhibiting a process that results in the loss of proteins and their building blocks, amino acids, among cancer patients.

"We don't use it by itself, it is combined with other orthodox or other natural therapies. And we don't prescribe it over the phone," Sorge says.

When considering complementary and alternative therapies, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests asking your health care provider the following questions:

  • What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
  • What are the risks associated with this therapy?
  • Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
  • What side effects can be expected?