Research & Clinical Trials

Yale Study: Complementary Medicine Can Shorten Cancer Survival

Written By:
Aug 01, 2018
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
August 1, 2018

Cancer patients — including those with mesothelioma — who receive complementary therapy are likely to die sooner than those who use only conventional treatment, according to researchers at Yale School of Medicine.

Patients receiving complementary medicine also were more inclined to forego at least one component of their conventional treatment regimen.

The study was done by a team from the Yale Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research Center at Yale School of Medicine.

JAMA Oncology published the study July 19.

“The study was about patients who were using unproven therapies for treatment of cancer. Patients who make that decision are more likely to refuse a conventional therapy,” lead author Dr. Skyler Johnson, chief resident in radiation oncology at Yale Medicine, told “And it appears to result in an increased risk of death.”

Use Complementary Therapy Carefully

The same group of researchers reported a year ago that patients using alternative medicine — nonmainstream therapy used without any conventional medicine — significantly lowered survival time.

Complementary medicine refers to the type that is used alongside conventional treatments.

The wide spectrum of choices includes traditional Chinese medicines, vitamins, minerals and herbs, botanicals, naturopathy, homeopathy and specialized diets.

In the latest study, researchers found too often patients were using the complementary medicine as a substitute for proven adjuvant therapies.

“Obviously patients are always free to make their own decisions,” Johnson said. “But they should be informed decisions. There are risks associated with these types of therapies, including an increased risk of death, based on this study.”

Lowering Survival Rates

The retrospective study used data from the National Cancer Database, a joint project between the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society.

The analysis involved 1,290 patients, including 258 who received complementary medicine from 2004 to 2013.

The study found patients choosing complementary medicine had higher refusal rates of:

  • Surgery: 7 percent vs. less than 1 percent

  • Chemotherapy: 32 percent vs. 3.2 percent

  • Radiation Therapy: 53 percent vs. 2.3 percent

The use of complementary therapy also was associated with a lower five-year survival rate (82 percent vs. 86 percent) and was associated with a greater risk of death.

Cases in the study involved only prostate, breast, colorectal and lung cancers. Johnson, though, said the same theories would apply to mesothelioma, the rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

“The majority of cancer patients who use complimentary medicines believe their use will result in improved survival,” said senior author Dr. James Yu, associate professor of therapeutic radiology at Yale Cancer Center. “We became interested in this topic after we reviewed the literature and found that there was scant evidence to support this belief.”

Talk to Your Physician First

Johnson believes the problem with complementary medicines often stems from several factors.

“We know that a patient with a less hopeful prognosis may be more inclined to try these things,” he said. “And the desire to take control, take charge of your own treatment, in some ways empowers people. But unfortunately in this case, it increases the risk of death.”

Slick, deceptive marketing of products also can be inviting, particularly when someone’s life is at stake.

“It’s always shocking to me as to what can be claimed about how these things work. Unscrupulous providers are out there,” he said. “Preclinical data, from a petri dish or from mice — even after it’s been proven totally ineffective in humans — is being used.”

Johnson believes there is a place for complementary medicine. If it makes a patient feel better (mentally or physically), doesn’t interfere with standard therapy, and doesn’t cause a financial hardship, he believes it can be useful.

“Cancer can be a scary place. It’s hard to blame people who say, ‘I’m going to try anything and everything out there if there’s even a slight chance it will work,’” he said. “But the takeaway [from this study] is discuss these things with your physician first. Be cautious of these unproven claims.”

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