AUG 17, 2017 05:36 AM PDT

Alternative Medicine: A Con for Cancer Patients?


Alternative medicine options are becoming increasingly popular among patients. But results from a new study suggests that these options should be carefully scrutinized, as they may double the risk of death for the patient.

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According to previous studies from the National Institute of Health, about one in three Americans seek treatment for their ailments outside of the clinic. Alternative medicine options range from over-the-counter supplements (fish oil, probiotics) to physical and psychological therapies (yoga, acupuncture, chiropractors). Of note, many of these treatment options have conflicting supporting evidence, and some may not have been scientifically tested at all. Although these studies found that most people who opt for alternative care also seek conventional treatments, there are people (5 percent) who rely solely on alternative medicine.

But what is the cost of opting for alternative medicine? At best, some alternative therapies won’t have any effects, good or bad. At worst, patients relying on these therapies may be unwittingly gambling away their lives.

"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 James B. Yu, associate professor of therapeutic radiology at Yale Cancer Center, and the study’s senior author.

The researchers followed 840 patients who were diagnosed with cancer from 2004 to 2013. Cancer types included breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal cancer, at the early stages. They found that those who opted for treatments other than chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation faced a greater risk of death, irrespective of the cancer type. In fact, over five years, those who chose alternative therapies had more than doubled the risk of dying.

"We now have evidence to suggest that using alternative medicine in place of proven cancer therapies results in worse survival," said Skyler Johnson, the study’s lead author. "It is our hope that this information can be used by patients and physicians when discussing the impact of cancer treatment decisions on survival."

The link between alternative medicine and increased risk of death was also clear despite some apparent advantages. "In this study, all the biases were in favour of alternative medicine, in that the cohort was younger, more affluent, and had fewer comorbidities. These patients should be doing better than the standard therapy group, but they're not,” said Yu. "That's a scary thing to me. These are young patients who could potentially be cured, and they're being sold snake oil by unscrupulous alternative medicine practitioners."

"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,” added Cary Gross, a co-author of the study who calls for further research into alternative therapies.

Additional sources: Yale University, CNN

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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