We often read of cancer patients who forgo or delay traditional conventional options, such as chemotherapy, and instead opt for alternative therapies, such as spiritual healing or herbal remedies given by non-medical personnel. Unfortunately this can have serious survival implications for the patient – in many cases the treatment fails to stop the cancer. However, there is a paucity of actual clinical evidence on the use and effectiveness of alternative therapies. Step in Johnson and colleagues who examined the United States Cancer Database to compare the survival outcomes of patients who underwent alternative therapies with those who received conventional therapies for four cancer types (breast, prostate, lung and colorectal). Although rare, they found 281 patients who had chosen alternative therapies exclusive of any other treatment – these patients were more likely to be younger, female, have a lower comorbidity score, higher income, higher education, and a more advanced cancer stage. When matched with patients who received conventional treatments (on cancer type, age, clinical stage, etc.), they found that alternative therapies were associated with significantly lower five-year survival overall – 78.3% of patients who underwent conventional therapies survived, compared to 54.7% of those who had alternative therapies only (hazard ratio 2.21, 95% CI 1.72-2.83). When looked at by cancer type increased hazard ratios were found for breast (HR 5.68, 95% CI 3.22-10.04), lung (HR 2.17, 95% CI 1.42-3.32) and colorectal cancer (HR 4.57, 1.66-12.61), but there was no significant difference for prostate cancer (HR1.68, 95% CI 0.68-4.17) – the authors suggest this may be because of the long natural history of prostate cancer and the short follow-up of the study.
By itself, undergoing alternative therapies isn’t likely to be harmful, but it should be taken in combination with conventional therapy, and health practitioners need to ensure that patients are fully aware of the impact of their decisions regarding cancer treatment.
- Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its Impact on Survival. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2017.