Alternative medicine and cancer survival

I often wonder just how much I annoy people when the topic of alternative medicine (alt med) comes up. In general, if someone says something I don’t agree with, I let it slide. When it comes to alt med, however, I don’t seem to have the same restraint. It’s unfortunate really, as it comes up surprisingly often, and my position comes across as pretty extreme.

People ask “What’s the harm?”, and point out that “Even if it doesn’t do anything, people feel better having tried it”. I empathise with this position, but completely disagree. The point I try to make is that if we accept the use of alt med, we legitimize it, making people more likely to choose it over conventional medicine.

Alt med banner smaller

The focus of this post is cancer patients who put all their trust in alt med. While it’s true that most people use alt med alongside real medicine, the popularity of, and belief in, the alt med movement means that it is inevitable that some people will ignore mainstream medicine in favour of alternatives.

Unfortunately this does happen, and it happens regularly enough for us to study it. A few months ago, researchers from Yale published a paper looking into the outcomes for cancer patients who chose alt med over conventional treatment.

The authors chose four types of cancer to look at: breast, prostate, lung and bowel. Additionally, they chose patients who had early stage disease, so had a good chance of surviving their cancer.

Before I get on to the results of their study, one interesting thing to note is that the researchers show that the patients who rejected conventional treatment were more likely to be younger, healthier, more highly educated, and female. These are the patients who would be expected to have better outcomes than other cancer patients, to survive longer and to have fewer complications. However, that is not what the researchers found.

Unsurprisingly, the patients who chose alternative medicine were far more likely to die from their cancer than those who didn’t. In the case of breast cancer, alt med users were nearly 6-times as likely to die. In colorectal cancer they were 5-times as likely. In lung cancer they were twice as likely. To put it simply, choosing alternative medicine above conventional therapy kills cancer patients.

So, if 100 women with breast cancer were on conventional therapy, 13 would be expected to be killed by their cancer in the 5 years after diagnosis. If the same women were on alternative medicine instead, 41 of them would be expected to be killed over the same time. It is a damning example of the damage alt med can do.

Alt med survival

As always, there are a few caveats with this study. One is that these patients completely rejected conventional therapy. Patients who combined it with conventional therapy were included in the conventional arm, so this study can’t say anything about the benefits/damage of that situation.

It is also likely that these numbers quoted above are an underestimation. Patients who started using alternative medicine, but switched to conventional therapy (when they realise it was not working) will have been counted in the conventional therapy group, meaning that in reality the use of alt med is probably doing even more damage than described in this paper.

This all brings me back to my original point. When people give alt med a sheen of validity by claiming it works, it starts to be seen as a true alternative to our tried and tested treatments. The reality is that it simply isn’t. As long as it has some legitimacy, a proportion of the population will use it instead of real medicine, at best wasting money, and at worst seriously damaging their own health. I argue with people about alt med because if I don’t, I feel like I am tacitly agreeing that it has some clinical use, when I know it is not true.

To paraphrase an old saying, you know what they call alternative medicine that has been shown to work? MEDICINE. And real medicine saves lives.

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