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Cancer patients choosing alternative medicine over standard, proven cancer treatments are more likely to die, researchers reported Thursday.
Complementary medicine did no obvious harm when people used it besides conventional surgery, chemo and radiation, the researchers found. But when people opted out of time-tested treatments to choose herbs, homeopathy, or other alternative treatments, they were twice as likely to die from their cancer.
Doctors and the Food and Drug Administration have been warning for years that unproven treatments can lure patients away from legitimate therapy that can save their lives. But it is one thing to say that one treatment was not shown to help and it is another to show for sure that it does not.
"It's shocking the lack of comparative data that's out there," Dr. James (1
They examined the medical records of nearly 2 million cancer patients. Not many admitted that they used complementary medicine, or had written it down in their records, but did. Their cases were compared to the cases of more than 1,000 patients who did not use complementary or alternative medicine.
Those who chose alternatives such as herbs, homeopathy, naturopathy or Chinese medicine were also more willing to reject at least some standard cancer treatments, Yu's team reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association JAMA Oncology.
Seven percent of those who chose complementary treatments refused surgery, for example they found – compared to just 0.1 percent of patients who just went with standard treatment. More than a third refused chemotherapy or hormone therapy and half refused radiotherapy.
"If you could cure cancer with baking soda, who would not want that?"
Those who opted for alternatives tend to be younger Women, who have more education and more money, researchers found.
The message to the doctors is clear, Yu said.
"When a patient uses complementary medicine, make sure that you truly listen to that patient and his needs, they are more likely to refuse treatment," he told NBC News.
Cancer patients have unrealistic views about the value of complementary therapy, wrote Yu's team.
"About two-thirds of cancer patients believe that complementary medicine will do so, prolong life and one-third expect it to cure their disease," they wrote.
Yu is sympathetic.
"I think it's a very humane answer – when confronted with a potentially disfiguring treatment or toxic with real long-term effects – to wonder if there is another way," said Yu.
"I understand it completely, unfortunately, people who have cancer are very vulnerable to unscrupulous or perhaps well-intentioned but poorly informed practitioners who offer non-medical treatment, but who do not appear desirable on the surface."  It is not unreasonable to hope, said Yu oncologists should listen to the concerns of patients.
"If you could cure cancer with baking soda, who would not want to do it, or if you could cure cancer with healing crystals or positive thinking, who would not want that? I fully understand and relate to patients," he said.
And if supplemental treatment helps a patient feel better, Yu said that, besides proven therapy, he was all for it.
"There is a wide range of complementary medicine used by patients with cancer, including herbs and plants, vitamins and minerals, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy and natural medicine, as well as specialized diets," wrote his team.
"Previous research has shown that complementary therapies such as massage, acupuncture, yoga and meditation can improve quality of life." It is estimated that between 48 percent and 88 percent of cancer patients require the use of complementary and alternative medicines as part of their therapy. "
The research team did not consider specific, individualized alternative therapies, but said they may use probiotics, Ayurvedic medicine, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, qigong, acupuncture, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, meditation, Include massage, prayer, special diets, progressive relaxation and guided pictures.
"We need a better listening to our patients," said Yu. "The use of complementary medicine is very common in my opinion, and oncologists need to know that."
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institute of Health has an app for people who want to look at research on alternatives therapies.
The Center says people using alternative therapies are afraid to tell their doctors, noting that some herbal products, such as St. John's wort, can interfere with cancer treatments.