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Choosing Complementary Medicine Over Conventional Cancer Treatment Decreases Survival

A recent study published in JAMA Oncology found that patients with curable cancers who were treated with complementary medicine were more likely to refuse conventional cancer treatments, impacting their chances of survival. According to James Yu, MD, senior author of the study and associate professor of therapeutic radiology at Yale Cancer Center, "The majority of cancer patients who use complementary medicines believe their use will result in improved survival. We … found that there was scant evidence to support this belief."

The researchers, who were from Yale Cancer Center and the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research Center (COPPER) at Yale School of Medicine, analyzed data from the National Cancer Database on 1,901,815 patients from across the United States who were diagnosed with nonmetastatic breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2013. They found that while patients who chose complementary medicine did not take longer to initiate conventional cancer treatments, they had higher rates of refusal for surgery (7.0% vs 0.1%), chemotherapy (34.1% vs 3.2%), radiotherapy (53.0% vs 2.3%), and hormone therapy (33.7% vs 2.8%). Use of complementary medicine was also associated with poorer 5-year overall survival (82.2% vs 86.6%). The data suggested that the increased mortality risk associated with complementary medicine was mediated by the refusal of conventional treatments.

Lead author Skyler Johnson, MD, chief resident in radiation oncology at Yale School of Medicine, concluded, "Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion about the role of complementary therapies. Although they may be used to support patients experiencing symptoms from cancer treatment, it looks as though they are either being marketed or understood to be effective cancer treatments." Co-author Cary Gross, MD, Yale professor of medicine and epidemiology, agreed: "The sources of misinformation need to be better understood, so that patients aren't being sold a false bill of goods."

For More Information

Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP & Yu JB (2018). Complementary medicine, refusal of conventional cancer therapy, and survival among patients with curable cancers. JAMA Oncol. [Epub ahead of print] DOI:10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.2487 

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