BHA - Why cancer treatment with alternative medicine can double risk of dying?

Thursday 17 August 2017 by Graciela Rojas

A new study has found that patients who choose cancer treatment with alternative medicine more than double the risk of dying in five years compared to those who chose conventional cancer treatment for the treatable cancers. The study is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Alternative medicines have enjoyed a steady popularity worldwide and Americans are especially followers of alternative forms of medicine. In fact studies have shown that one third of Americans are taking some form of alternative medicine or remedy for their ailment. This new study looks at the risks taken when treatable cancers are being treated with alternative remedies.

For this study the Yale University researcher team looked at 10 years of records in the National Cancer Database from 2004 to 2013. The researchers belonged to the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research (COPPER) Center at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center.

This is a joint project of the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society. They found 281 patients who had been diagnosed with early-stage breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer. These 281 patients had chosen to take alternative approaches to medicine compared to conventional treatment. They make up for a small proportion of the whole population of cancer patients on the database. Their survivals were compared with 560 patients with the same diagnoses who chose to be treated with conventional chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation treatments.

Results showed that the 281 patients who chose alternative medicines were two and a half times more likely to die within five years. At the end of five years, 78.3 per cent of people who chose conventional treatment were still alive compared to just 54.7 percent of those who chose alternative medicines. Breaking down into individual cancer types –

  • Those taking alternative medicine for early stage breast cancers were 5.68 times more likely to die within 5 years
  • Those taking alternative medicine for colorectal cancers were 4.57 times more likely to die within 5 years
  • Those taking alternative medicine for lung cancers were 2.17 times more likely to die within 5 years
  • Those taking alternative medicine for prostate cancer did not show a statistical difference in the two groups of patients. Prostate cancer however is a slow growing cancer with a different course of progression than other cancers and thus was not included in the final conclusions that were drawn from the study.

Lead researcher and cancer specialist, Skyler Johnson said, this is the evidence that was needed to prove that use of alternative medicine instead of proven cancer therapies can worsen survival chances. This information he believed could be shared by physicians to their patients when they are being explained the impact of cancer treatment and when talking about survival chances. He explained that this study filled a gap in the knowledge. There is till-date no study that looked and compared the effect of alternative medicines on cancer survival vis a vis conventional cancer therapy.

The study did not look at the different types of alternative medicines and individual variations though. Johnson said that the different types of alternative medicines could be medicinal herbs or homeopathy, special diets or crystals or anything else. They were all found to be ineffective as a whole.

One of the researchers James Yu explained that in a study like this that depends on data pulled out from records, there is a risk of bias in selection of patients. Most patients chosen for this study in the alternative medicine group for example, belonged to a younger age group, and had fewer other ailments accompanying the cancer, and were from affluent backgrounds. He noted that the scary part was that these younger persons who could be cured with conventional treatment fell prey to “unscrupulous alternative medicine practitioners”. Hopefully this study would put an end to that he believed. Yu added that patient autonomy made the patient the sole decider on what course of action he or she would take.

This study might help them make a better informed choice he hoped.