Although cancer is no longer a death sentence, the diagnosis of the disease no doubt brings tremendous distress to both the patient and the family. As medical treatments for cancer progress at a disproportionate pace—where new treatments only bring about months of additional survival time—many distraught patients resort to alternative medicine in search for a miracle cure.

Till date, we have yet to see a cure-all miracle drug. It is even harder to find one in alternative cancer treatments.

Higher risk of death

Researchers from the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research (COPPER) Centre at the Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Centre reported a much higher risk of dying for those who receive alternative cancer therapy alone, as compared to patients who underwent conventional cancer treatment. The team followed 280 cancer patients who suffered from non-metastatic breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer and refused conventional cancer treatments (i.e. chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery or hormone therapy).

Instead, these patients chose alternative treatments as their sole therapy. Such behaviour was found to associate with 2.5 times greater risk of dying. The finding is in direct contrary to popular beliefs among patients where alternative medicines are safer and more effective.

According to Dr James B. Yu, senior author of the study, too many patients with advanced cancer who presented in their clinics at Yale Cancer Centre were treated with ineffective and unproven alternative therapy alone.

“We now have evidence to suggest that using alternative medicine in place of proven cancer therapies results in worse survival. It is our hope that this information can be used by patients and physicians when discussing the impact of cancer treatment decisions on survival,” elaborated the paper's lead author, Dr Skyler Johnson.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)

There are important distinctions between an alternative medicine and complementary treatment. When an unproven, "outside of the mainstream" – and often times ineffective – therapy is used as the primary treatment for cancer, it should be referred to as an "alternative treatment". Complementary medicine, on the other hand, refers to adjunct therapies that are used in parallel with conventional cancer treatment.

The danger of relying solely on alternative treatments is not limited to the alleged lack of efficacy, but a recent Malaysian study showed the use of complementary and alternative treatments was significantly associated with delays in presentation and resolution of breast cancer diagnosis.

Similarly, a couple of studies conducted in Singapore supported the notion that the use of CAM is extensive among Singaporeans. The most commonly used CAM were vitamins and supplements and traditional Chinese medicine.

“CAM is widely used by patients doing chemotherapy treatment, but some of them do not inform their oncologist about it,” remarked the study lead author, Dr Chong Wan Qin, who is also the associate consultant oncologist of the National University Cancer Institute in Singapore.

The bottom line

Given the impact of cancer on our society and the widespread adoption of complementary and alternative treatments in place of conventional therapy – there is a surprising void in the scientific literature that investigates the effectiveness or the lack of effect of these treatments. However, as argued by Dr David H Gorski, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, the bottom line is very clear: CAM does not improve cancer survival.

Despite the growing evidence on the impact of CAM, there is still a great deal of anxiety among patients who are diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps, it is not by shaming alternative treatment practitioners – rather, by comforting and counselling these panic-stricken patients of the best possible treatment – we will be able to truly optimise the treatment outcome. MIMS

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