BANGOR, Maine (WABI) - In a recent study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute*, researchers at Yale University have raised concerns about the potential for worse outcomes for patients that chose to delay or avoid conventional cancer treatment in favor of 'Alternative Medicine' options. This is a very important issue for cancer patients as there is now a large menu of these unproven options that can be very tempting to those who may be very vulnerable to claims made by those selling these products.
The rise of the internet as a source of information for patients and families has increased the potential for bad as well as good medical advice, and doctors all report that it is very common for someone to have already decided on a treatment option when they first see a cancer specialist. Dr. Skyler Johnson and his team identified 280 patients with breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer who had initially chosen to pursue treatment options that are considered unproven for cancer, and then matched them with 560 patients who had cancers of similar grade and type but who had chosen to follow standard treatment, which included surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. They then compared the outcomes of the different groups, and found some disturbing trends: Patients with breast cancer experienced a five times greater chance of premature death. Those with colorectal or lung cancer had a slightly lesser chance of premature death, at 4 and 2 times respectively, compared to those choosing conventional treatment. Interestingly, the prostate cancer group did not show a statistically significant bad outcome, but the researchers attributed this to the longer study time needed to demonstrate a difference for this usually slow growing cancer. In particular, the researchers noted that those choosing an alternative treatment often delayed or completely avoided the standard therapy for these cancers. The authors did try to clearly distinguish 'complementary or integrative' therapies from 'alternative'. If patients pursued such treatments as massage, positive imagery, herbal or aroma therapy, and did not let this optional treatment delay or substitute for the standard cancer therapy, then no worsening outcomes were seen.
The study was not designed to detect if patients using integrative or complementary treatments had any better overall results compared with standard therapy alone. Unfortunately the results of this study are not unexpected. In the 1970's and 1980's cancer patients often pursued a variety of unproven treatments, and had very poor outcomes. One treatment in particular known as Laetrile which was derived from apricot pits, and promised cures for a wide variety of cancers. Many, including the actor Steve McQueen who died of mesothelioma, went to great lengths to obtain this non-FDA approved drug. Some patients travelled to Eastern Europe or Mexico to free-standing Laetrile clinics. Many non-physicians were implicated in fraudulent schemes to procure this drug for desperate patients, but it wasn't until 1982 when the Mayo Clinic published the results of good research that showed 174 out of 175 patients had increased growth of their tumor after taking Laetrile that the enthusiasm for this therapy started to decline.
So what should an enlightened patient do when contemplating treatment for a serious cancer? First, if you do not have confidence in your current provider, or if you are uncomfortable with the options being presented to you, ask for a second opinion from anyone who is board certified in their field. Second, do not delay this process as cancer cells do not take a holiday while you are gathering more information. And finally, once you embark on treatment, do not hesitate to use 'complementary and integrative' therapies that could provide much comfort -- just don't stop the necessary care while pursuing these adjuncts! *Journal of National Cancer Institute, Volume 110, Jan 2018 p 121-142