Alternative Medicine Alone Leads to Lower Cancer Survival

Herbal medicine

Cancer patients who opt for alternative therapy instead of conventional medicine significantly decrease their chances of survival, according to researchers at Yale School of Medicine.

Although the popularity of alternative medicine continues to grow, a recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found survival rates significantly reduced for those who use it as first-line therapy.

Conventional cancer treatments — chemotherapy, surgery and radiation — still produce a much better chance of survival.

Mesothelioma was not included in the study, but the findings are relevant to this rare and aggressive cancer as alternative treatment becomes more commonly used.

“A person with cancer who choses alternative medicine is 2.5 times more likely to die than somebody who uses proven methods of treatment,” Dr. Skyler Johnson, Yale School of Medicine radiation oncologist and lead author of the study, told Asbestos.com. “When you choose alternative medicine instead of conventional, it likely will impact survival [in a negative way].”

Study Does Not Include Complementary Therapy

The study looked at survival rates for breast, lung, prostate and colorectal cancers, including 840 patients diagnosed from 2004-2013 who were listed in the National Cancer Database.

It did not include patients who received alternative therapies alongside conventional medicine — as many mesothelioma patients do. This is known as complementary therapy.

Alternative medicine refers to any treatment approach outside of mainstream or conventional medicine and is not approved for cancer by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

They can range from body-based therapies such as acupuncture or nerve stimulation to special diets filled with herbs and botanicals. They could be homeopathic, which are derived from natural substances, or mind-body therapies such as yoga or tai chi.

They have become a popular way to avoid the side effects that often come with chemotherapy, radiation or aggressive surgery.

Unfortunately, they don’t work very well, according to the team of researchers from Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

“Alternative medicine kills cancer patients,” surgical oncologist Dr. David Gorski at the Karmanos Cancer Institute wrote for the website Science-Based Medicine, in response to the latest study from Yale. “It is basically no different than refusing treatment altogether.”

Younger Patients Opt for Alternative Treatment

The Yale study examined the records of 280 cancer patients who had chosen alternative medicine and 560 patients who opted for conventional medicine.

Researchers found the five-year mortality rate was 2.5 times greater for the alternative treatment option. When separated by cancer type, breast cancer patients had a five-times greater risk, followed by colon cancer patients (four-times greater) and lung cancer (two-times greater).

There was no greater risk for prostate cancer, which typically grows much slower.

Researchers believe that a cancer patient often will start with alternative medicine, then switch to conventional after the cancer has progressed, a dangerous option that shortens survival time in most cases.

“Patients are presenting to us in clinic with more advanced cancers than they would have otherwise, if they had done proven therapy initially instead of alternative therapy,” Johnson said. “And mesothelioma is one of those where you don’t have the luxury with taking time to delay treatment. Survival chances decrease with each day.”

Mesothelioma specialists typically rely on surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as conventional medicine.

Researchers at Yale also observed that those who opted for alternative therapy generally were younger, more educated and with higher incomes, a demographic that would suggest a better chance for survival.

They found the opposite was true.

“You’d assume that someone who is more educated and has a better understanding of science and medicine, they’d be less likely to make a choice like this,” Johnson said. “But that’s clearly not true, based on this data.”

He believes the bad choices often come after a patient hears second-hand success stories with alternative treatments, but without realizing conventional medicine was used in conjunction.

“It’s important to note that when it comes to alternative cancer therapies, there is just so little known — patients are making decisions in the dark,” said co-author Dr. Cary Gross. “We need to understand more about which treatments are effective and which ones aren’t.”


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His specialty is interviewing top mesothelioma specialists and researchers, reporting the latest news at mesothelioma cancer centers and talking with survivors and caregivers.

  1. Johnson, S. et al. (2017, August 10). Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its Impact on Survival. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article-abstract/110/1/djx145/4064136/Use-of-Alternative-Medicine-for-Cancer-and-Its?redirectedFrom=fulltext
  2. Doerr, A. (2017, Aug. 10). Using only alternative medicine for cancer linked to lower survival rate. Retrieved from https://news.yale.edu/2017/08/10/using-only-alternative-medicine-cancer-linked-lower-survival-rate
  3. Gorski, D. (2017, Aug. 14). Alternative medicine kills cancer patients. Retrieved from https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/alternative-medicine-kills-cancer-patients/

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