Does Alternative Medicine Impact Cancer Survival?

A study ( link: ) just released set out to examine the effectiveness of alternative cancer treatments. Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), this study followed 281 patients with non-metastatic cancer of the breast, colon, lung, or prostate who chose alternative cancer treatments alone (i.e., they refused conventional therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and/or hormone therapy). The study found that this approach resulted in a greater risk of death.

When reading a study, it is always important to ask ourselves a few questions in order to evaluate its quality:

  1. How many test subjects were there (was it a large or small study)?
  2. Who/what were the test subjects (people, animals, or cells in the lab)?
  3. Was it a quality study (did they accurately measure the right things)?
  4. Was there the potential for bias (who paid for the study)?

Given the fact that relatively few cancer patients utilize alternative therapies exclusively, nearly 300 test subjects are a sizable number. Human trials are always preferable to animal or lab studies, so we know that the results are more likely to be applicable to patients.

The difficult part of this study for me lies in the fact that “alternative medicine” is a very broad term. What did the study authors consider to be alternative medicine? Dietary supplements? Massage? Meditation? Standing on your head while reciting the alphabet backwards?

When delving deeper into this study, it is clear that the specific treatments these 281 patients received were not specified. We do not know which treatments each patient received, nor do we know who recommended and/or administered them. It is likely that each patient received a wide range of therapeutic interventions, probably from a combination of other health practitioners and possibly from “Dr. Google” as well. Without a doubt, there was a significant lack of control over which interventions these patients received, and this study is thus a very poor indicator of whether or not “alternative medicine” works.

As an integrative oncologist, I want to know which treatments work, why they work, and whether or not I can safely use them with my patients. This is true for both conventional cancer treatments as well as alternative treatments. I do not like the tendency of conventional medicine to lump “alternative treatments” into one huge category, as these treatments run the gamut from fairly well-studied to completely far-fetched.

With that said, I do believe that this study illustrates that it is foolish to rely ONLY on alternative treatments for cancer – simply because we don’t know enough about which treatments work best for a given patient. More research is clearly needed. This is one of many reasons why I recommend an integrative approach where we embrace the best aspects of both conventional medicine and alternative medicine.