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Beware of black salve, a pseudo-treatment of cancer, dermatologists warn

601px-Snake-oil_salesman_Professor_Thaddeus_Schmidlap_at_Enchanted_Springs_Ranch,_Boerne,_Texas,_USA_28650a (1)As a child, I was a big fan of the Little House on the Prairie books and show, and I still have a clear image in my mind of episodes featuring a traveling charlatan, shucking his "cures." Unfortunately, those charlatans still abound, though they now surface in online health forums and pseudo-science articles touting alternative treatments.

One such treatment, called black salve, has so many adherents that the American Academy of Dermatology recently issued a warning about its use to "treat" skin cancer. As Mark Eliason, MD, a University of Utah researcher who recently investigated the use of black salve, explained in a press release:

There is a misperception that black salve ‘draws the cancer out,’ when, in fact, it just indiscriminately damages anything it touches. One of the reasons black salve treatment is so dangerous is that many users have no idea how harmful it can be.

Black salve is a group of easy-to-obtain balms that contain zinc chloride and sanguinarine, a compound distilled from plants. It sears the skin and is listed on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's list of "187 fake cancer 'cures' consumers should avoid."

The Utah researchers interviewed 18 people who reported using black salve to treat their skin cancer. Many of the users learned about black salve after talking to friends or family members, and the most common reason cited for turning to the salve was their aversion to surgery.

The paper, which appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, also includes some quotes from salve users:

  • "Every time they cut into them, those cancer cells are going all throughout your body, which I don't really care for. If I had a spot that I knew was something like that, I would definitely try the black salve again first before I had something like that biopsied and cut" - 62-year-old man
  • "I wouldn't hesitate if I had a little bit of black salve. I'd put it on there because I know what it would do and it would be off in a while. Then I wouldn't have to go see a doctor" -73-year-old man
  • "I don't have time to sit there and be sick like this all the time. One day of extreme pain, to me, is worth it, rather than have 2 weeks of feeling really sick and looking like a nightmare" -49-year-old woman

The researchers urge people who suspect they have skin cancer to visit a dermatologist.

Previously: Common skin cancer evades treatment via specific mutations, Skin cancer linked to UV-caused mutation in new oncogene, say Stanford researchers and Humble anti-fungal pill appears to have noble side-effect: treating skin cancer 
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

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