Homeopathy is not of much help
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People who choose alternative medicine instead of conventional treatment for their cancer are more likely to die from the disease.
This is what Skyler Johnson and his colleagues at Connecticut’s Yale School of Medicine found out when they looked at treatment and survival records from the US National Cancer Database.
The team identified 281 people with breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers who had opted for unproven treatments and avoided conventional approaches such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.
Johnson doesn’t know what alternative treatments these people have been taking, but many of his own patients have chosen a wide range of therapies. “It can be herbs, botanicals, homeopathy, special diets, or energy crystals, which are basically just stones that people believe have healing powers,” he says.
More than twice as likely to die
The team then compared these people’s health outcomes to 560 other people who were similar in age, race, and disease but who were undergoing conventional treatment.
They found that people taking alternative medicine were two and a half times more likely to die within five years of being diagnosed. That’s a low estimate, says Johnson, skewed by the fact that prostate cancer, for example, takes longer to develop into a life-threatening disease.
People with breast cancer were 5.68 times more likely to die within five years of people taking alternative medicines. While 41 percent of those who received conventional treatment for lung cancer survived at least five years, only 20 percent of those who decided against such treatment did so.
And only 33 percent of people using alternative medicine for colon cancer survived the next five years, compared with 79 percent of those who received conventional treatments.
The reason some people survive with alternative treatments is likely because many eventually seek conventional treatment, often once their disease has progressed, Johnson says. Such secondary treatments were not recorded in the database.
John Bridgewater, an oncologist at University College London Hospital, is not surprised by the results. “Many patients often take special diets instead of conventional treatment,” he says. “But we have no evidence that anyone benefits from these diets other than the fee charged.”
The individuals in the analysis who chose alternative treatments were generally wealthier and better educated. In the US, health insurance doesn’t cover unproven treatments, so only wealthier people can afford the most expensive treatments, Johnson says.
“Herbs and diets don’t sound expensive, but when these things are supplied through vendors, they can come with a hefty bill,” he says. “It’s a billion dollar industry. People pay more out of pocket for alternative treatments than for standard treatments. “
Journal reference: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, DOI: 10.1093 / jnci / djx145
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