Last updated October 25, 2018 at 1:11 pm
Refusing to accept conventional medical treatments is a really bad idea.
People diagnosed with cancer have a range of treatment options. However new research has found that those who choose alternative therapies at the expense of conventional medical practices put themselves at much higher risk.
The study conducted by the Yale School of Medicine found that alternative therapies doubled the risk of dying.
Use of complementary medicine is growing. These therapies, which lack scientific evidence of their efficacy, include homeopathy, dietary supplements and cleanse and “detox” regimes. But the patients who choose them believe in them.
“Past research into why patients use non-medical complementary treatments has shown the majority of cancer patients who use complementary medicines believe their use will result in improved survival,” said James Yu, who oversaw the research.
“We became interested in this topic after we reviewed the literature, and found that there was scant evidence to support this belief.”
Increased refusal of conventional therapy
A range of alternative therapies have been found to be useful for specific circumstances in combination with conventional therapies. Acupuncture and massage, for example, are known to improve the quality of life of people struggling with the side effects of conventional treatments.
However, the danger comes when alternative therapies are promoted as effective cancer treatments in their own right, with patients instructed to cease conventional treatments outright.
To investigate alternative therapy use and its impact on survival and conventional treatment adherence, the researchers studied 1,290 patients with breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer in the US National Cancer Database, diagnosed over a 10-year period, from 2004 to 2013.
By collecting the outcomes of patients who received alternative therapies, they found that patients who chose to use alternative therapies as cancer treatment, were more likely to refuse other conventional cancer treatments and as a result, had a higher risk of death than those who used no alternative therapies.
Patients were matched based on age, clinical group stage, race/ethnicity, year of diagnosis, and cancer type, to attempt to remove biases such as if patients turned to alternative therapies during palliative care.
The patients using alternative therapies had higher refusal rates of surgery (7.0% vs 0.1% for people receiving conventional medicine), chemotherapy (34.1% vs 3.2%), radiotherapy (53.0% vs 2.3%), and hormone therapy (33.7% vs 2.8%).
Overall, the risk of death was over two times higher for the people using alternative therapies in place of conventional treatments.
The authors are careful to note that the increased risk of death was not due to the alternative medicines directly, but the increased rates of refusal of conventional medicine by people who used the alternative therapies. The rejection of conventional medicines was the factor influencing their survival.
The researchers do admit that they cannot rule out that the use of alternative therapies was not higher than reported due to patients being hesitant to report its use to their clinicians. However, it was a highly specific variable for those refusing conventional treatments.
They also accept that there is a possibility there are other unaccounted for factors that could have influenced survival, such as BMI, refusal to treat other non-cancer risk-factors. However, patients using alternative therapies were more likely to be female, younger, more affluent, well educated, privately insured, and healthier overall, which the researchers say would actually create a bias towards greater survival for this group.
“The fact that complementary medicine use is associated with higher refusal of proven cancer treatments as well as increased risk of death should give providers and patients pause,” said lead researcher Skyler Johnson.
“Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion about the role of complementary therapies. Although they may be used to support patients experiencing symptoms from cancer treatment, it looks as though they are either being marketed or understood to be effective cancer treatments.”
The research has been published in JAMA Oncology
Two of the study authors reported personal funding from a radiation therapy company, while one had a relationship with Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer.