AUG 17, 2017 05:36 AM PDT

Alternative Medicine: A Con for Cancer Patients?

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

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.

Image credit: Pixabay.com

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 TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
JUL 18, 2018
Immunology
JUL 18, 2018
Immunotherapy Increases Survival of Melanoma Brain Metastases Patients
Use of Checkpoint Blockade Immunotherapy increases survival rates in Melanoma Brain Metastases patients, with a 4-year survival rate increase from 11.1% to 28.1%...
JUL 26, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
JUL 26, 2018
When a Cancer Gene Switches Sides
All cells carry a gene named p53, which has a vital role in shielding the body from cancer. But it can betray cells too....
SEP 11, 2018
Cannabis Sciences
SEP 11, 2018
New Evidence Shows Marijuana Smoke is Not the Same as Cigarette Smoke, at Least, in Terms of Lung Disease.
A recent report published in the journal Breathe by scientists in the UK suggests that chronic marijuana smoking may not cause the same deleterious effects...
OCT 25, 2018
Health & Medicine
OCT 25, 2018
Sedentary Lifestyle More Deadly Than Smoking
A number of recent studies have found that first cardiovascular associations with regular high-intensity exercise. These studies......
OCT 31, 2018
Drug Discovery
OCT 31, 2018
New Drug Target For a Rare Lymphoma
The promise of immunotherapy in oncology is stronger than ever. Now, an international team of scientists and physicians from the Research Institute of the ...
DEC 04, 2018
Drug Discovery
DEC 04, 2018
Drug Combination May Be Effective for Melanoma
Protein kinase inhibitors have been noted to be the most effective class of drugs in the treatment of melanoma—a deadly skin cancer of the melanocyte...
Loading Comments...