Over the years, the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy have been studied and debated by physicians and questioned by cancer patients, some of whom have made turned to alternative treatments.
A database study of four common cancers in the U.S. — breast, prostate, lung, and bowel — found that patients with non-metastatic cancer who declined “conventional treatments” were more likely to die within five years of diagnosis than those who undergo standard care — with the exception of low- and intermediate-risk prostate cancers not in need of extra care.
The study by Skyler Johnson, a radiotherapy cancer specialist at Yale University, was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, under the title “Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its Impact on Survival.”
Cancer patients have the right to decide which type of treatment they feel most comfortable with, but being well-informed as to the pros and cons of such treatments is crucial, and such information may not be readily available.
To understand the potential harm of such alternatives, Johnson gathered data from cancer patients who opted for unconventional cancer therapies. He began investigating the issue on the web after his wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
“It was during my second year of medical school when my wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma,” he said in a news release. “Despite the fact I was training to be a doctor, I did what many people probably do. I was curious and searched the internet.”
Because of his medical training, Johnson was equipped to easily spot misleading or factually wrong information regarding the subject. While his wife made a full recovery, he was stunned at what he found and decided to conduct a formal study.
Using the U.S. National Cancer Database, Johnson collected patient records sent from over 1,500 cancer hospitals across the U.S., which included more than 70 percent of all newly diagnosed cancer cases.
Johnson looked at data from prostate, breast, lung, and gastro-intestinal cancers, and looked for a specific code (different codes represent different treatments) relative to “unproven treatments given by non-medical therapists.”
Among the millions of records, 281 patients opted solely for alternative therapies as defined by Johnson. Such a choice clearly reduced these patients’ chances of survival.
“The figures show that patients who opt for alternative therapies and decline conventional treatments are 2.5 times more likely to die within five years of being diagnosed,” he said. “It’s a huge reduction in the chances of survival.”
But an exception was seen among people with low- and intermediate-risk prostate cancer, whose choice of alternative therapy didn’t have any impact on survival. This might be explained by the fact that many such prostate tumors don’t even need treatment, since they won’t cause any harm, Johnson said.
The study also found that younger women, with overall better health and a higher income and level of education, tended to be the type of patient most likely to opt out of conventional treatments. These patients also often lived in areas of the country where legislation is more favorable toward practices offering alternative therapies, such as the West Coast.
“It’s my hope that studies like this can still reach and engage people who are unsure and seeking facts, and help them have better conversations with their doctors about their options,” he said
Johnson’s study took seven to 12 months to complete.
Some “alternative” therapies are known to have beneficial effects, especially if taken in addition to conventional therapy, the researcher notes. But he advises patients to search for information from reliable sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and to speak with their doctors regarding questions they might have.