You have, as of today, a one hundred percent chance of dying. But a lot of people would like a little more time to do things, like eat interestingly-shaped pastas, or play catch with their grandchildren. That makes sense. I’d also like to do those things. But sometimes, our pursuit to eat lots of pasta or die trying leads some of us to make decisions that don’t actually help—like taking alternative, instead of conventional, cancer treatments.
A team of Yale researchers had seen data about folks who opted for alternative medicine in lieu of the peer-reviewed stuff, but noticed there wasn’t much research to actually compare the outcomes. The researchers found data on 280 patients who made the choice, and compared them to 560 relying on the usual treatments. Overall, those taking conventional treatments were more likely to survive the five years after treatment.
“Improved communication between patients and caregivers and greater scrutiny of the use of [alternative medicine] for the initial treatment of cancer is needed,” the study’s authors wrote in the paper published last week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
The researchers sifted through the United States’ National Cancer Database to find folks who opted for at-home cancer treatments from non-medical professionals and refused the conventional treatment for four cancers: breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal. They also found matching cases to compare, based on diagnosis, race, insurance type, cancer type, and when they were diagnosed. After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that those who opted for alternative medicine treatments alone were more than twice as likely to be dead before the end of the follow-up period.
These results held for colorectal, lung, and especially breast cancer, where over 75 percent of patients receiving standard medical treatment were alive after 5 years, but more like a third of those who opted solely for alternative treatments made it that far. The results were unclear for prostate cancer, which was unsurprising as the disease tends to progress more slowly, write the study authors.
This study isn’t perfect, of course—the whole thing is based on observational data, not patients recruited and closely watched. The team didn’t know exactly what alternative treatments the folks took, and there were several other sources of bias. The survival rates of those taking alternative treatments could be too high, since those turning away from conventional medicine tended to skew younger and wealthier.
Before you get upset, please realize that this study is only focusing on those who opted solely for alternative treatments, not those who supplemented their cancer treatment with other things. Of course, there are problems with the way cancer is treated today, cancer is terrible, no one wants to die. We all want to try anything that will help. There’s no problem with that.
Foregoing the actual treatment for a disease in favor of a treatment not proven to work, though, will only lead to heartbreak.