People with curable cancer who rely solely on alternative medicine are less likely to survive than people who use conventional therapy, according to a recent study.
Researchers at Yale School of Medicine compared 281 patients with non-metastatic breast, prostate, lung or colorectal cancer who chose alternative medicine (AM) as the sole form of treatment, to 560 patients who chose conventional cancer treatment (CCT), consisting of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and/or hormone therapy.
“Although rare, AM utilization for curable cancer without any CCT is associated with greater risk of death,” the researcher wrote.
In fact, when examining five-year survival, nearly half (46 percent) of patients who chose AM died, while only 22 percent of patients who chose CCT died.
“Alternative medicines often lack both a biologic plausibility and the research necessary to show that they work as the sole anti-cancer therapy,” said Skyler Johnson, M.D., author on the study and a resident in radiation oncology at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Conventional treatments have “advanced mechanisms by which they can damage cancer cells,” he said.
“These mechanisms have been proven to work in laboratory settings and clinical settings,” he said.
When talking to people with cancer, he often uses the old adage: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Interestingly, there were some groups of patients who were found to be more inclined to use AM. They included: patients with breast or lung cancer; patients who were in a higher socioeconomic status; patients who lived in the Intermountain West or near the Pacific; patients with stage 2 or 3 disease; and patients who had a low comorbidity score.
While Johnson said that it is unclear why younger, more educated patients make this decision, he did note that the geographical correlation could be because there is a higher concentration of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) schools in these regions, as well as state legislation favoring CAM and a higher concentration of immigrants in this area who may be using CAM.
But alternative medicine may not be all bad. In some cases, it has proven to be beneficial – when paired with traditional cancer treatment.
“When combined with conventional therapies, alternative medicines serve as a compliment to treatment. However, additional research is needed to show that these therapies are safe and beneficial,” Johnson said.
Some alternative medicines taken orally or via IV impede chemotherapy. and extreme diets may interfere the ability to complete conventional treatment.
“Patients should also be aware that there are vast amounts of misinformation via the Internet and that they should discuss their questions and choices with their oncologists,” Johnson said.
Patients should also be weary of magic bullets or treatments that seem too good to be true, as alternative medicine is a multibillion-dollar industry, according to Johnson.
“Now we have research evidence that shows that if they [patients] choose alternative medicine, it could have dire consequences on their chance of survival,” Johnson said.