The Mystery Behind Alternative Cancer Treatment

Actress Farrah Fawcett and the late Coretta Scott King are among the thousands of people who have turned to alternative approaches to cancer treatment when conventional medicine has failed.

It's often a last-ditch attempt to find a cure, one that brings the patient into a murky world of offshore clinics and unproven courses of treatment that are scorned by the medical establishment.

"I would [tell a patient considering alternative treatment] that they are signing their own death certificate," said Barrie Cassileth, chief of the Integrative Medicine Department at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Cassileth has not treated Fawcett. "I would say they are wasting time they could otherwise spend happier and with their families."

Fawcett, who was first diagnosed with anal cancer in September 2006, went into remission for several months after receiving traditional cancer treatments in California. In May 2007, however, Fawcett's cancer returned.

Anal cancer, according to Anil K. Rustgi, the chief of gastroenterology at the University of Pennsylvania, is fairly uncommon in the United States and is often associated with the human papillomavirus virus, or HPV.

According to People.com, Fawcett, 60, was "disheartened" by both the reoccurrence of the cancer and the treatment she was receiving in the United States, so she traveled to Germany's University Clinic in Frankfurt in search of an alternative course of treatment.

Calls to Fawcett's publicist regarding what specific treatment the star will be receiving were not returned.

Fawcett joins a number of other high-profile patients who have sought often unproven techniques in countries outside the United States to beat cancer.

King, the widow of Martin Luther King, traveled to a cancer clinic called Hospital Santa Monica, in Tijuana, Mexico, in search of a cure for ovarian cancer. King died just a few days later.

Actor Steve McQueen also went to Mexico in 1980 hoping to find a cure for his mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

What Are Alternative Cancer Treatments?

From high doses of vitamins administered intravenously to varying levels of chemotherapy and radiation, alternative cancer treatments run the gamut in technique, according to medical professionals.

German facilities, said Frank Cousineau, the president of the Cancer Control Society who has spent years visiting alternative treatment facilities worldwide, often use hypothermia techniques and employ extracts from mistletoe against cancers.

But further details about the techniques are hard to come by — the clinics approached by ABCNEWS.com declined to comment or simply did not return calls — which makes supporters of the treatments harder to come by.

"[Alternative treatment] is a marking term that means anything anybody wants it to mean," said Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs a site called quackwatch.com, which publishes information about alternative clinics. "It indicates it has not been proven, but people use it for different wants, and the implication by promoters is simply that it's a legitimate alternative."

Barrett, who has made it his job to warn cancer patients about the risks of alternative treatments, says he has spoken to people who have visited clinics in other countries and have suffered tremendously from unsanitary IVs and infections.

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PHOTO: Jodie Foster and Alexandra Hedison attend the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Inaugural Gala presented by Salvatore Ferragamo at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Oct. 17, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Stefanie Keenan/Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts/Getty Images for Wallis Annenber