Alternative medicine and cancer survival (Part 2)

My last blog post was about alternative medicine in cancer treatment. That piece was about patients who refuse all other treatment, and thankfully that is still a relatively rare occurrence. Usually, patients use alternative medicine alongside their regular treatment. As a result, studying patients who refuse all regular treatment isn’t necessarily the most informative thing.

Because of this distinction, researchers from Yale decided to have a look at patients who do this, and they published their results this month. It is not encouraging reading.

The research showed that if patients used alternative medicine at the same time as conventional medicine, they were twice as likely to die in the 5 years after diagnosis. I will get into the details and the numbers below, but first I want to repeat that statement. If patients used alternative medicine at the same time as conventional medicine, they were twice as likely to die in the 5 years after diagnosis. That is a shocking toll.

Before I get into the study itself, I want to briefly explain this result. Essentially, if someone uses alternative medicine, they are more likely to refuse other parts of the treatment. So this terrible loss of life is probably not because a specific alternative medicine was causing a problem, but because the belief in pseudoscience has corroded and undercut the public’s trust in medicine. People believe that their alternative treatment is viable replacement for conventional therapy.

This belief has not sprung out of nowhere; an entire industry has been built on the idea that medicine is “toxic”, and that if something is “natural” it is automatically better for you.

I know so many people who use alternative medicine, from acupuncture, to supplements, to homeopathy, and they often say “what’s the harm?”. Well, this is the harm. Because of the normalisation of this kind of thinking, patients are making bad medical decisions, and are dying as a result. I will say it again: patients who used alternative medicine at the same time as conventional medicine were twice as likely to die in the 5 years after diagnosis.

So what does the science actually tell us? Research from a few years ago showed that if someone uses alternative medicine, they are more likely to skip certain parts of their treatment. However, that study didn’t look at how this impacted their survival. This new paper takes that finding and looked at a larger population of patients to see if the use of alternative medicine alongside conventional treatment had any affect (good or bad) on cancer.

Firstly, the authors confirmed that in their population of patients, those who used alternative medicine were far more likely to refuse or skip part of their treatment. This included surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.

For example, 7% of patients who used alternative medicine refused surgery, while only 0.1% of other patients did. 34% of alternative medicine using patients refused part of their chemotherapy, while only 3% of other patients did. In a way, this is understandable: these treatments are hard, and make people feel awful. If you already believe that your side effect free alternative medicine is a viable replacement for your chemo, then skipping a round of chemo doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

Just to be clear, interventions like surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy are not used because we think they improve survival; they are used because we know it. Huge numbers of clinical trials have been done to figure out what allows patients to live longer, and these treatments do that. And refusing some of these seems to be what is doing the damage in patients taking alternative medicine.

There is not much more I can really say about this study, apart from the usual caveats. A lot of patients lie to their doctors about their use of alternative medicine, so that could be a confounding factor. The authors were very strict with their criteria, so as a result, the study was relative small, with only 258 alternative medicine-using patients. That being said, it is the biggest study we have on the topic, and the analysis was very rigorous.

What this study really shows is the harm that the “natural” industry is doing. Vaccination rates are falling all around the western world. Species are being wiped out because of the popularity of traditional Chinese medicine. But perhaps most damagingly, a third of the American population regularly use alternative medicine without any evidence that is has any effect, spending nearly $200 billion in the process. With such a huge number of people using it, and with the credulous treatment it receives in Hollywood and other media, it is no wonder that people assume it works. It has been marketed and accepted by a large number of people as a true alternative to medicine, and as a result, people are dying for no reason.

This is why it is so important to call out pseudoscience when it comes up. We live in a world where medicine is advancing on a daily basis. We can live longer, healthier lives, but people are increasingly taking that for granted and turning towards pseudoscientific ideas, because they are more “natural”. The reality is that the more people who understand that alternative medicine does nothing, the better.

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