Patients choosing alternative cancer therapy double risk of death

Published: Aug. 21, 2017 at 1:54 PM EDT
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A recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute said patients who chose alternative therapies to treat a common, curable cancer instead of opting for the recommended medical treatment double their risk of death.

Medical treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are conventional methods. Any other unproven cancer treatment administered by non-medical personnel would be considered an alternative therapy.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Skyler Johnson of Yale School of Medicine, said he's found that patients are increasingly refusing or delaying conventional cancer treatment in favor of alternative therapies.

As a result, the patients' cancers are "advancing; either getting larger or spreading to lymph nodes or spreading to distant sites. as a result," Johnson said. "This is concerning, because your chance of cure decreases as the cancer grows and spreads."

With no scientific evidence to support a choice in favor of alternative therapy, Johnson and his co-authors at Yale think it would be worthwhile to study the issues.

"We could have an informed discussion based on the evidence of what the risk might be if patients chose to move forward with alternative therapies," he said.

The researchers on the study gathered information from 840 patients diagnosed between 2004 and 2013 in the National Cancer Database — a joint project of the American Cancer Society and the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons.

To compile it, the researchers looked at the most common cancers in the U.S., such as breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer, Johnson said.

They looked at survival data on 280 patients who used alternative medicine, as well as data on 560 patients who had received traditional cancer treatment.

The team found that patients who received alternative medicine had a two and a half times greater risk of dying during the five and a half follow-up period than those who chose conventional methods.

Breast cancer patients who chose alternative medicine instead of traditional had a five-fold greater risk of death. Colon cancer patients increased their risk fourfold, and lung cancer patients increased their death risk by twofold.

Commenting on the new study, Dr. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute wrote, "There are other studies showing similar results, but unfortunately they are relatively few."

"Alternative medicine kills cancer patients," Gorski, who was not involved in the research, wrote on the website Science-Based Medicine. "It is basically no different than refusing treatment altogether and much more expensive and troublesome."

He says the new study has "limitations," including the possibility that the use of conventional medicine is likely to have been under-counted since some patients who choose alternative medicine ultimately "come back to conventional medicine."

"However, if such a bias occurred, it would have tended to make the differences in survival between the alternative medicine group and the conventional treatment group smaller, not larger," Gorski wrote. "If such a bias occurred in this study the harm caused by choosing alternative medicine is likely to be significantly worse than reported.

"There is no good evidence of specific anticancer effects from close to all (if not all) alternative medicines," Gorski said." He added that many alternative medicine patients aren't receiving effective supportive care, "resulting in inadequate (or nonexistent) relief of cancer-related symptoms and unnecessary suffering."

The study also investigated why patients choose to follow standard medical plants or not.

"We identified people who were more likely to choose alternative medicines," Johnson said. "And it's usually people who have a higher income, who are more well-educated, who are healthier and who live in the West and Pacific regions of the US. We have this group of people we know who are doing this; we don't know why.

"You'd assume that someone who is more well-educated, they have an understanding of science and medicine, they'd be less likely to make a choice like this, but that's clearly not true, based on this data," he said.

"Anecdotally, there's this belief that alternative therapies are as effective and nontoxic," Johnson said. "So in their minds, why not do something just as good but have no side effects associated with that?

Patients will hear success stories about someone who chose alternative therapy, but Johnson added that they won't realize those people often received some or all of the recommended conventional treatment as well.