Alternative medicine doubles risk of cancer death

New research shows shunning conventional cancer treatment in favour of alternative therapy more than doubles the risk of death

Researchers from the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research (COPPER) Center at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center studied 840 patients with breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal cancer in the National Cancer Database (NCDB) — a joint project of the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society.

The NCDB represents about 70% of newly diagnosed cancers across the United States.

The researchers compared 280 patients who chose alternative medicine to 560 patients who had received conventional cancer treatment. The patients were diagnosed from 2004 to 2013.

Conventional treatment was defined as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and/or hormone therapy. Use of alternative therapies was undertaken alone, rather than in conjunction with conventional treatment.

The patients who used alternative therapies alone were two and a half times more likely to die within five years of their diagnosis: 54.7% compared to 78.3% of those who used conventional therapies were still alive at the end of five years.

The risk of death spiked to 5.68 times more likely for those with breast cancer who used only alternative treatments.

The growth of interest in pursuing alternative medicine instead of conventional cancer treatment has created a “difficult situation,” the researchers say; there is limited research evaluating the effectiveness of alternative medicine.

“We became interested in this topic after seeing too many patients present in our clinics with advanced cancers that were treated with ineffective and unproven alternative therapies alone,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. James B. Yu, associate professor of therapeutic radiology at Yale Cancer Center.  

Lead author Dr Skyler Johnson said that the research provides evidence that using alternative medicine in place of proven cancer therapies results in worse survival.

“It is our hope that this information can be used by patients and physicians when discussing the impact of cancer treatment decisions on survival.”  

Dr. Cary Gross, co-author of the study, called for further research, adding, “It’s important to note that when it comes to alternative cancer therapies, there is just so little known — patients are making decisions in the dark.

“We need to understand more about which treatments are effective — whether we’re talking about a new type of immunotherapy or a high-dose vitamin — and which ones aren’t, so that patients can make informed decisions.”

The research was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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