A Popular Century-Old Medicine That Does Not Cure Cancer
Tons of people are treating their ailments with black salve, an Edwardian-era paste that is not only gross, but dangerous.
Would you resort to an Edwardian cancer treatment from the early 1900s as an alternative to modern medicine? What if you were promised it would only target cancerous cells, leaving the healthy ones unharmed? And that somehow the FDA and Big Pharma were colluding to hide this miracle cure from you in the name of money?
Black salve, also known as Cansema or Bloodroot Salve, is growing in popularity among alternative health communities, riding on claims like this. The only trouble is that none of them are true.
Black salve doesn’t have some sort of magical or chemical ability to recognize cancer cells and only eradicate those that are harmful. In fact, it’s actually a corrosive substance known as an escharotic that works by burning the flesh so badly that a thick, dry scab known as an eschar is left behind.
Unsurprisingly, black salve is listed on the health fraud website Quackwatch, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a medical professional who actually recommends using it.
“Escharotics for skin cancer are not merely ineffective, they're dangerous,” says Dr. Jan Steckel, a pediatrician from Oakland, Calif. “They can cause terrible scarring and erosion of normal structures. And the sad thing is that conventional allopathic treatment of most skin cancers is easy, relatively noninvasive, and highly effective. I've had a couple of basal cell cancers scraped off my own skull with a laser in an office procedure known as Mohs surgery, and it's no big deal. So why would you use an Edwardian treatment that has been shown to be dangerous?"
None of these facts, however, have convinced any of the holistic or natural medicine practitioners currently advocating its use to stop and reconsider what they’re doing. Nor has it deterred a growing number of of users who congregate on Facebook and Youtube, discussing treatment plans and progress in groups. Nearly 20,000 people follow the page @blacksalve on Facebook currently, and there used to be two active groups — Black Salve Research Group and Black Salve Pet Research — that had 5,000 members collectively in 2017. Both of those groups have since disappeared from Facebook, likely because their members — and their pets — started dying from using black salve.
Like a lot of alternative medicine, black salve was originally a reputable medical treatment with a specific and limited scope. Employed in the 1900s to fight skin cancer, its capacity to burn away flesh ensured that all of the cancerous cells were gone, even if it did take a slash-and-burn method to achieve it.
But black salve was only ever meant to treat surface skin cancers. It was never meant for internal use. Yet that hasn’t stopped people from swallowing it in pill form in a bid to treat a range of internal maladies. The dangers of doing this are vast and medical professionals are understandably concerned.
"If black salve is so damaging to skin, imagine the destruction it could wreak on mucous membranes,” Dr. Steckel says. “Under no circumstances should it be applied or taken internally."
But for many cancer sufferers, black salve seems like a better alternative to modern medicine. Conventional cancer treatments are grueling. And in the United States and other countries where you have to pay for healthcare, it can be prohibitively expensive. If you offer people what seems like a cheap and supposedly harmless alternative, they’re going to cling to it and become defensive when challenged.
The same goes for the not insignificant number of patients who become involved with it after being told that their cancer is no longer treatable. The people who often join these communities are desperate and scared. They don't want to die, and oftentimes they're willing to try anything.
But price gouging and end-stage cancer alone don’t explain black salve’s ballooning popularity. Nor do they explain the truly bizarre conspiracy theories that have sprouted up around it, such as the popular belief that Big Pharma is intentionally making us sick and hiding the real cures from us, all in the name of profit.
Something common to many of the Facebook groups is the belief that slack salve works not by attacking cancerous cells as most of those touting it claim, but by drawing out toxins. Toxins, according to these users, are responsible for cancer, which itself is a toxin. They believe that toxins are responsible for all ills that befall a body, and that they can be avoided by eating only organic food, drinking water without fluoride, and engaging in unscientific detoxing processes like drinking their own urine, consuming bleach, or undergoing regular epsom salt footbaths.
This theory of toxins is similar to the anti-vaccine movement and their avoidance of life-saving prophylactic care. Both groups believe these nebulously defined toxins will cause everything from autism to shaken baby syndrome, and any attempt to prove otherwise is met with accusations of being a paid “shill” for Big Pharma. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of crossover between people who refuse to vaccinate their children and people who believe that black salve is good for you.
And it’s not just cancer (or what is assumed to be cancer, since a significant number of black salve users don’t seek out professional diagnoses) that causes people to turn to black salve. They put it on everything from herpes to ordinary pimples, replacing an admittedly annoying white head with a large black eschar and some clear signs of infection. The logic is that if everything is caused by toxins and black salve draws the toxins out, then everything else can be treated by black salve, too.
This has led to such dangerous behaviors as applying it to different parts of the body in order to “draw” the cancer out, and then posting the infected wound to Facebook groups for encouragement and affirmation that yes, the gaping sore on said user’s breast is supposed to look like that.
This echo chamber effect is the most disturbing feature of these Facebook groups. Often the only advice given is to rub a little coconut oil on it to moisturize the area, dust it with turmeric, or switch to using gauze instead of bandaids because it must be the glue irritating the skin and not the corrosive salve. Rarely is seeking out professional medical care suggested, and if it is, that person is kicked out of the group or trolled by other members.
Though a return to nature and the medicine of our ancestors sounds good on paper, and many traditional medicines have proven to be efficacious, the use of black salve runs the very real risk of serious disfigurement and death. But don’t tell that to its believers. They’ll just accuse you of being part of the Big Pharma conspiracy and then block you from their Facebook group.