Treating curable cancers with “alternative medicine” techniques is a choice that at least one in three Americans makes, including former Apple CEO Steve Jobs before his death from a curable form of pancreatic cancer in 2011. But even if treating the body with these “natural” methods sounds appealing, a recent study suggests that using alternative medicine to treat cancer more than doubles the risk of dying within five years.
Scientists examined a decade’s worth of medical records and found 281 patients with curable forms of breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer. All of these 281 patients decided to try alternative forms of medicine instead of more conventional treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery or radiation. Compared to the 560 patients who opted for regular treatment, the alternative medicine patients overall were two and a half times more likely to be dead five years later. Among specific cancers, that rate was higher — breast cancer patients were 5.68 times more likely to die, while those with colorectal were 4.57 more likely to die.
“We now have evidence to suggest that using alternative medicine in place of proven cancer therapies results in worse survival,“ study author and oncologist Skyler Johnson said in a release. “It is our hope that this information can be used by patients and physicians when discussing the impact of cancer treatment decisions on survival.”
What is alternative medicine?
Alternative medicine is a loose term, but it can encompass anything from hypnosis, yoga and aromatherapy to ingesting herbs and dietary supplements. Steve Jobs reportedly tried hydrotherapy, consulting psychics and limiting his diet to just fruits and vegetables before his death at the age of 56, according to Scientific American. But at the end of his search for cutting-edge treatments, Jobs reportedly regretted his choice to delay traditional surgery for alternative medicine, biographer Walter Isaacson told CBS.
“He said, ‘I didn’t want my body to be opened. I didn’t want to be violated in that way.’ He’s regretful about it,” Isaacson said. “I think that he kind of felt that if you ignore something, if you don’t want something to exist, you can have magical thinking. And it had worked for him in the past.”
The study also showed that some people are more likely to try alternative medicine than others. It may be counterintuitive to survival rates, but those who chose alternative medicine generally had the advantages of higher incomes and higher education levels, plus they tended to be much younger.
“These patients should be doing better than the standard therapy group, but they’re not,” James Hu, the study’s senior author and the director of Yale’s prostate and genitourinary cancer radiotherapy program, told MedPage Today. “That’s a scary thing to me. These are young patients who could potentially be cured, and they’re being sold snake oil by unscrupulous alternative medicine practitioners.”