Alternative medicine

How the Use of Alternative Medicine Is Harming Survival Rates for Cancer Patients

Two doctors discuss their research on how the use of alternative medicine versus traditional medicine affects cancer patient survival rates and how oncologists can approach the age of medical misinformation.

Through stories and fairy tales, many have come to believe in the possibility of overcoming insurmountable odds. So it’s easy for some, faced with the monster that is a cancer diagnosis, amidst fear and despair, to believe they can overcome it and find a miracle cure.

Fostering this belief is a wealth of misinformation available on the internet that can fuel ideas about finding a cure using a method that science has not discovered. Now you have patients choosing essential oils and crystals over surgery and chemotherapy in hopes of finding a cure for cancer that oncologists haven’t yet figured out. Welcome to the world of alternative medicine, a new kind of health “epidemic” that more and more doctors are seeing every day.

“It’s a natural human impulse,” said Dr. James Yu, MD, MHS, a Yale Medicine radiation oncologist who is part of the Yale Cancer Center, New Haven, Connecticut. “I understand where they come from. Cancer treatment and its side effects are very, very scary. I understand the desire to avoid potentially disfiguring or toxic therapy… It is the human impulse to control one’s own destiny. Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of this human impulse.

Yu said the market for alternative medicine or cancer therapy is big, maybe even bigger than doctors think. Although the use of alternative cancer treatments is understudied, Yu said most doctors know it is “prevalent.”

“Anecdotally, we think it’s increasing,” said Skyler Johnson MD, assistant professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine in the Department of Radiation Oncology in Salt Lake City. “In many cases, patients don’t tell their doctor what they are doing. It’s incredibly difficult to study.

Yu and Johnson, along with Yale Medicine internist Cary Gross, MD, radiation oncologist Henry Park MD, MPH, are pioneers in alternative medicine. They published a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in January 2018, comparing patients who chose to use alternative medicine alone to treat their cancer versus those who received recommended traditional treatments. What they found was that those who refused traditional cancer treatments in favor of alternative medicine had a higher risk of death (relative risk [HR] = 2.50, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.88 to 3.27).

The group also published an article in JAMA Oncology in October 2018, examining patients who had received some form of traditional cancer treatment in addition to alternative medicine. The patients used in this study ranged from those following all of the recommended treatment methods in addition to some forms of alternative medicine to people in the middle (some who may have chosen surgery, but avoided the recommended chemotherapy in favor of alternative medicine).

What they found was 1,901,815 patients, 258 were using complementary medicine. These patients did not delay starting recommended treatment, but were more likely to refuse surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy. Complementary medicine use was also associated with a lower 5-year overall survival compared to patients who did not use complementary medicine (82.2% [95% CI, 76.0%-87.0%] against 86.6% [95% CI, 84.0%–88.9%]; P= 0.001) and a greater risk of death (HR, 2.08; 95% CI, 1.50-2.90).

“In a general sense, these articles both show similar things and that is that people who chose to use non-traditional cancer treatment and who refused certain components of conventional cancer therapy were at an increased risk of death. “, Johnson said.

Johnson studies the sources where people get information about alternative medicine. He himself has heard from patients about healing and energy crystals, bee sting therapy, black salt, CBD oil and vitamin C IV therapy, details of which have been leaked. on Facebook, misleading medical websites and even word of mouth.

Johnson knows firsthand how easy it is to stumble upon medical misinformation. When his wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma seven years ago, Johnson, then a two-year medical student, went online for answers. There, he got a first-hand perspective of what many patients see when researching their diagnosis.

“There was a mix of valuable research material and things that weren’t of much value,” he said. “It was an eye-opening, ‘ok, this is what our patients see when we hop on Google’ type experience. I can totally relate to people who have questions, or are interested in other things because in many cases it sounds so good… the reality of the situation is that a lot of this information is misinformation and it’s not accurate it’s not just shocking to see first hand , but disturbing.

With that in mind, he says it’s crucial to build trust with a patient and make it clear that you have a common goal of beating cancer. Asking questions about the alternative medicines patients use without stigmatizing them can help them open up about the alternative treatments they are considering.

Johnson also suggests embracing cancer centers that offer services that fall under “mind-body therapy,” such as massage therapy, exercise classes and nutritional counseling. Staff at these centers can often be biased against refusing treatment, he said.

Yu said he tries to listen to and understand patients who decide to use alternative medicine and provides them with evidence and assurance that the recommended treatment works. It often allows patients to continue with their alternative treatments if they are not harmful and they find them helpful.

“Many unscrupulous people are offering unauthorized and unproven therapies to vulnerable people,” Yu said. “If patients are receiving harmful treatment, we need to keep an eye on that. We can keep an eye on other epidemiological trends. We need to keep an eye out for people who refuse cancer treatment.