By heatherericksonauthor.comThe Erickson Family

Snake Oil Salesman

Snake Oil Salesman

I’m doing double duty this month during the A to Z Blogging Challenge. Here at Facing Cancer with Grace, I will focus on caregiving. I’ll also be doing the challenge at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker, where I will share ways to increase your creativity. I hope you’ll visit me at both sites. While you’re here, sign up for my email list. Today’s post is O is for Oil as in Snake Oil Salesman. One thing that can be very frustrating for patients and caregivers to deal with is the snake oil salesman.

I should specify that I’m not talking about oils specifically, nor am I disparaging the use of oils such as aromatherapy oils, cannabis oil, or any other oils that can be used to complement your treatment plan.  Snake oil is a generic term that I’m using to describe anything that purports to be the “cure” for cancer, with no scientific proof to back it up. This might come in the form of capsules, oils, specific foods, diet plans and places where miracles take place. I have a problem with the pitch, as much as the product.

Try this snake oil

I can’t count the times that people have offered us some cure that will work for all ailments. This isn’t usually an issue when Dan is doing well and the treatment he’s on is working. The second we tell people that his treatment has stopped being effective, the snake oil salesmen bring out their wares. We get emails, instant messages, and visits. It’s overwhelming and potentially dangerous.

Dangerous? But it’s Natural!

Most of these “cures” are innocuous. They won’t hurt anything but your pocketbook. You should always run any supplement past your oncologist because there are some which are dangerous. One example is turmeric. I love turmeric. I use it to decrease inflammation as part of my treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. My doctor has put her stamp of approval on me using this supplement.

We spoke to Dan’s oncologist thinking that turmeric might help reduce his pain levels more naturally. That got a big veto for 2 reasons:

  • Dan is a hemophiliac.
  • He is on chemo which lowers his platelets.

Turmeric thins the blood, something that when combined with his condition and treatment could be very dangerous. That’s just one example of why it’s important to always check with your doctor about any supplements you are considering taking.

snake oil

It’s Not All Snake Oil

The medical community is embracing many remedies that were once on the fringe of medicine. The use of these complementary treatments in palliative care is one of the reasons the oncology field is on the forefront of this movement.

Some examples:

  • Aromatherapy oils can be very helpful in easing side effects such as nausea and even fatigue.
  • Cannabis-based medications (And cannabis, itself, in some states) is used to improve appetite in patients who are losing too much weight.
  • Acupuncture is also being used successfully to combat pain, insomnia and other symptoms and side effects.

Supplement—Not Replacement

While these complementary treatments are a wonderful addition to a patient’s treatment regimen, they are not a replacement. One of the problems associated with “snake oil” is the idea that it’s all or nothing. This is a scary thing when someone encourages a friend to skip the cancer center in favor of a “Tijuana Clinic.”

Faith Alone

PraySometimes, people encourage patients to use faith as a replacement for traditional medicine.

“God will heal you, but only if you have enough faith to trust in Him and Him alone.”

This is a really dangerous path to go down. It‘s one thing if a patient feels strongly that this is what they need to do. It’s something else to advise someone to do this. Consider that if you are wrong, it will cost your friend their life. Those kinds of decisions need to be made by the patient through prayer and contemplation.

Under Pressure

Patients and their families are already under intense pressure. Often they are bombarded with these snake oil pitches at the time they are most vulnerable. The influx of advice usually comes in when they are newly diagnosed or have a recurrence of their cancer. This is no time to take advantage of their fragile state and add to the feelings of confusion and doubt. Sometimes the intentions behind the advice are pure. Many times the person promoting the snake oil will benefit financially. It can become difficult to weed one out from the other. A patient and his or her loved ones shouldn’t have to.

Educating the Public

Somehow we are expected to educate everyone who comes along and says, “I really don’t know anything about this but…” Only seriously ill people(and their loved ones) get that sort of cavalier advice. One may as well shove their hand into a bin full of assorted pills and say, “Here,” handing the patient a fistful, “I don’t know what these do, but you can look into it.” It’s the same attitude.

Anxiety for Caregivers

Snake oil solutions can cause a lot of anxiety for caregivers. Every time some new miracle cure is pedaled to my husband I worry whether or not he will succumb to the temptation to chuck the treatment he’s on and take the next flight to Mexico. We have vigilantly vetted everything he has done to combat his cancer. I think that’s helped him live as long as he has. No one has as big a stake in his survival as I do. We were supposed to grow old together.

The Right Way to Do It

I will never forget the time we got a phone call from a dear friend. He wanted to meet up with my husband to “give him something.” This instantly set off the bells and whistles that he was going to try to sell him on a “cure.” Instead, he prayed with my husband and gave him a mouthwash. He had read on Dan’s Caring Bridge that he was struggling with some terrible mouth sores. Nothing seemed to work. It was painful to eat, drink, and even talk. This friend not only recommended something, but he also gave him a bottle. Boy, did it work! It cut the healing time in half and immediately brought pain relief to Dan’s mouth. I think of this wonderful friend whenever Dan gets a mouth sore and runs to the bathroom to use the Astring-O-Sol on it. And I thank God for that friend and pray a blessing on him.


My solution has always been to pray for wisdom. This is how I sort through the advice. I recommend it.


I’m in the early stages of putting together a resource page for caregivers of cancer patients. I’d love it if you’d check it out and email me any suggestions of resources you’d recommend. While you’re here, sign up for my email list to get a periodic email newsletter to encourage you on your cancer journey.



I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!


In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

Also, check out Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer.

Also, put your memories into words with The Memory Maker’s Journal.

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

Have any questions or comments? I would love to hear from you! By commenting, you agree to the terms of my privacy policy.

37 comments on “Snake Oil Salesman

I changed my mind about ‘snake oil’ treatments based on the experience of a dear friend. She went to Mexico for a treatment that wasn’t approved in the US. I think it amounted to lots of vitamins and sunshine but that isn’t the real story. They treated her like a queen, nurtured and cared for her, and understood what she was going through. She got better briefly but (of course) not permanently.

I thought, “Of course it didn’t work!” and she wanted to go back again. That’s when it struck me she loved the caring people, knew she would die anyway. So now, that sort of attitude is also on my list of treatments.


Hi Jacqui, Complimentary care is so important for people with chronic diseases, including cancer. My husband has a palliative care doctor, and in the past has had in-home nursing which focused on this. They did aromatherapy and were willing to give massages etc. This type of care is why people who go on hospice live longer than patients who don’t. The problem is the evangelistic way that people push what they label as “cures” on patients, often suggesting that the patient ignore their doctor’s recommendations. And of course, there is the problem of contraindications between supplements and treatments or the patient’s health history. I am so glad that your friend was able to get some relief, even if it was temporary. Thank you for sharing!


I was enjoying your post and thinking of how we can do such harm to our bodies (cancer or not) with seemingly harmless supplements. Then I got to the mouthwash part and I became so excited! I am sending some to a loved one who currently has mouth sores. Thank you!!!
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Hi Emily, That mouthwash has been such a gift. It seems every cancer and RA treatment causes mouth sores. Anything that shortens their duration is wonderful! Have a wonderful day.


I’m all for giving different ideas a try for treatments, but there have been a few that I’ve heard that sound so far fetched I don’t see how anyone could believe them. One of the FB groups I’m on for Interstitial Cystitis is about natural healing and someone claimed to know several people who cured their cancer solely via carrot juice.

~Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
My A to Z’s of Dining with IC
Patricia Lynne, Indie Author


Hi Patricia. If only it was that easy. I love carrot juice. 🙂 Have a wonderful day!


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This post made me think that not all of the patients will feel at ease when they use snake oil and other medicinal products. It really depends on your body and how you are willing to fight for your disease.


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