“Alternative” is No Alternative

Alt rock. Alternative energy. Alternative education. Even an alternative universe. These are all good things to enjoy to your taste. But when it comes to cancer, alternative medicine is not the answer.

According to research done at Yale University School of Medicine, people who choose alternative medicine as their only treatment for cancer are much more likely to die. Among patients with common ‘curable” cancers, those that use alternative treatments are 2.5 times as likely to die as those who use conventional treatment. And for breast cancer, the numbers are even worse. Choosing alternative medicine increases the risk of death by nearly 600%.[1]

Yet, in a recent survey of Americans nearly 40% of us said that cancer can be cured by alternative therapies, such as enzymes, oxygen, diet, vitamins, and minerals.[2]

Conventional Treatment is Tested

Conventional treatment, such as surgery, chemo, radiation, immunotherapy and hormone treatment, is based on evidence. That means doctors have rigorously tested them to prove they work. For these tests, researchers typically follow the gold standard, a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to assess which treatment is best. In an RCT, doctors randomly assign patients with similar characteristics and disease either to the “control” (standard) treatment, or the test treatment. Then they follow the patients over the long term to determine which treatment worked best. Doctors publish results, then others comment. Sometimes they poke holes in the findings. Other times they corroborate and strengthen the conclusion through their own research. Over time, evidence from this research leads to treatment protocols that get used at most cancer treatment facilities across the country, and even around the world.

The majority of alternative treatments do not have rigorous, repeatable, evidence that they work. Sure, we’ve all heard stories about patients who live long healthy lives after refusing conventional treatment. But maybe theirs was a slow growth cancer that wasn’t likely to speed their mortality in the first place.

Alternative vs. Complementary

That’s not to say that diet and exercise and massage don’t help as complements to conventional treatment. In fact, the leading cancer treatment centers now include integrative or complementary medicine as part of their treatment protocols. Music therapy, meditation, acupuncture, herbs and botanicals are increasingly being used to help patients manage the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment, when the evidence supports their use.

How do you know what might work for you? A good place to start is the Integrative Medicine internet resources on Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website. There’s a directory of herbs and botanicals, and another on mind-body therapies. Both evaluate the evidence to help you understand what works. They also show what might work, and what is known not to work.

Then, talk to you doctor to ask if a particular complementary treatment might be right for you. She’ll know what you can handle and how best to integrate it into your care.

[1]Johnson, et al, Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its impact on Survival, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 110, Issue 1, 1 January 2018, Pages 121–124, https://doi.org/10.1093/jnci/djx145

[2]National Cancer Opinion Survey, Harris Poll on behalf of ASCO, 2018.

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