In Brief
A team from the Yale School of Medicine discovered that cancer patients who chose alternative treatments were more likely to die than those who chose conventional treatments.

Alternative Doesn’t Mean Better

Cancer is nothing to mess around with. While alternative treatments may seem appealing to patients, some have been found to have more harmful effects in the aftermath.

Skyler Johnson and his colleagues at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut discovered this very fact when they decided to look into cancer treatments and cancer survivors. Records from the US National Cancer Database provided data on 281 people who tested positive for four types of cancer — lung, breast, prostate, or colorectal — and sought out alternative methods to deal with the disease, instead of the more conventional and often recommended treatments like chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery.

“[These alternative treatments] could be herbs, botanicals, homeopathy, special diets or energy crystals, which are basically just stones that people believe have healing powers,” said Johnson.

Johnson doesn’t know specifically what treatments this group used, but his team’s results are telling.

Johnson and his team compared the aforementioned 281 people to 560 others of similar ages and race who also had cancer, but chose the conventional route. The alternative treatment group was two and half times more likely to die within five years of being diagnosed. That said, Johnson notes that the nature of prostate cancer makes the comparison a little inaccurate, since it takes longer for this specific form of the disease to progress to the point of becoming life-threatening.

Among breast cancer patients, specifically, those that chose alternate treatment were over five times more like to die within the same span of time. Forty-one percent of lung cancer patients who took conventional treatments survived at least five years, compared to 20 percent of those who eschewed the treatment in favor of alternatives. Only 33 percent of colorectal cancer patients survived five years following alternative treatments; 79 percent survived five years using recommended means.

Those Who Chose

Interestingly enough, those that decided to try alternative treatments were also people who were considered wealthy or well educated. Alternate treatments like herbs or diets can often be expensive, especially when offered by a large company.

“It’s a multibillion dollar industry. People pay more out-of-pocket for alternative treatments than they do for standard treatments,” John Bridgewater, an oncologist at the University College London Hospital, told New Scientist.

There’s nothing to prove these method work or do not work, however, making it hard to keep people from seeking them out. The fact that people sometimes survive the treatment can also make it difficult to condemn it, though Johnson has speculated they managed to do so because they eventually got the necessary treatments. Secondary treatments are not kept on record, so there’s no official way to tell if this was the case, or if instead the person was incredibly fortunate.

Alternative cancer treatments might sound appealing when compared to methods like chemotherapy, which can have frankly unpleasant side effects. Yet the fact remains that these methods have gone through rigorous scientific testing and peer review, which confers some degree of safety and effectiveness. The scientific process is far from perfect — but it’s still the best we’ve got.