Let’s say you find yourself in the doctor’s office staring down a cancer diagnosis.
Who do you run to for treatment: your oncologist, or your local herbalist?
For many, the answer might seem clear.
Treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation are proven cancer fighters.
That’s according to the second annual National Cancer Opinion Survey from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). It included 4,887 U.S. adults ages 18 and older.
The truth is alternative treatments, such as oxygen therapy, special diets, or a vitamin regimen, simply don’t work just by themselves.
In fact, many times they do the opposite.
People who eschew traditional, evidence-based cancer treatment in favor of alternative therapies are 2.5 times more likely to die in a given period than those who follow their doctors’ recommendations for standard care, multiple studies have indicated.
Meanwhile, the argument in favor of alternative medicine is weak or nonexistent, said Dr. Richard L. Schilsky, ASCO chief medical officer, in a press release.
“The vast majority of alternative therapies either haven’t been rigorously studied or haven’t been found to benefit patients,” he said. “When patients are making critical decisions about which cancer treatments to undergo, it is always best to follow the evidence from well-designed research studies.”
By the numbers
Demographically, younger people between the ages of 18 and 37 in the recent survey were the most likely to believe that alternative medicine alone could cure cancer.
The oldest cohort, ages 72 and older, was the least likely to hold this view, according to the survey.
More than 1 in 5 of those surveyed either currently have cancer or had cancer in the past. Among this group, 22 percent thought alternative therapies could beat standard care.
“The study comes as a little bit of a wake-up call to physicians,” Dr. Jose Carrillo, a neuro-oncologist and associate professor of neurology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Healthline. “I’ve seen patients [switch to alternative medicine] many times in the past, only to see their tumor come back aggressively despite their best intentions.”
Complementary medicine can be beneficial
Alternative therapies are popular, though.
Somewhere between 48 and 88 percent of people with cancer use complementary and alternative medicine as part of their cancer care, previous research shows.
But that caveat — “part of” their care — is what matters most, experts say.
“It’s very important to distinguish alternative therapies (used instead of conventional treatment with the intent of treating cancer) from complementary or integrative therapies (used together with conventional treatment with the intent of relieving cancer symptoms or side effects of conventional treatment),” Dr. Ted Gansler, strategic director of pathology research at the American Cancer Society, told Healthline.
For instance, there’s a big difference between using unregulated herbal supplements and homeopathic remedies to treat cancer versus tried-and-true complementary therapies.
“Especially when it comes to herbal supplements, I’ve had a lot of patients who are on them and haven’t alerted me to that, especially while they’re on chemotherapy,” Carrillo said.
Instead, Carrillo would often find out that patients were using herbs and supplements after labs came back with irregular liver and kidney function reports, where tests had been normal previously.
Far from harmless, these effects can sometimes limit a patient’s ability to take their standard-of-care treatments, potentially worsening their treatment outcomes, he says.
But where complementary and integrative therapies are concerned, it’s a rosier picture.
Studies have shown that acupressure might help alleviate the symptoms of nausea that accompany chemotherapy, and yoga can help relieve anxiety and depression, Gansler notes.
One review of existing studies in the journal Medicines also showed that acupuncture can help relieve cancer pain, as can cannabis (with many U.S. states now approving medical marijuana for cancer patients).
In fact, the ASCO survey found that 83 percent of Americans approved of using medical marijuana for cancer treatment.
Doctors need to lead the way
Ultimately, doctors might have to learn to be better educators to their cancer patients.
“If I had to speculate, I think that there may be a skepticism of medicine and pharmaceutical industries that play a role in increasing [people’s] willingness to look at alternative therapies in spite of a lack of scientific data,” Carrillo said.
He points to a 2018 study that showed that after receiving a diagnosis and talking to a cancer specialist who recommended a course of treatment, only 0.02 percent of patients chose alternative medicine exclusively over standard cancer care.
Also, doctors might consider encouraging patients interested in complementary care by having a conversation about integrative therapies and pointing them toward the right studies.
“I think that sometimes with the cancer diagnosis, the search to look for other treatments beyond what is out there currently may actually be a potential conversation starter — for physicians to talk to cancer patients about clinical trials, to look at new treatment in a scientific way,” Carrillo said.
“That’s the only way we’re going to [get] new, FDA-approved treatments and therapies to advance the science,” he said. “One clinical trial at a time.”