The researchers, by analyzing US National Cancer Database statistics, found that patients were far more likely to be cured through conventional medicine, despite anecdotal evidence from some suggesting their cancer was cured by turning to natural or alternative remedies.
They tracked 280 individuals who were diagnosed with a variety of cancers — including breast, lung, prostate and colorectal — in 2004, and opted for alternative medicine, and 560 "control" patients who underwent conventional treatments — chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery etc.
After five years, 78.3 percent of those who opted for medical treatment were still alive, compared to just 54.7 percent who opted for alternative therapies. Those with lung cancer were twice as likely to die after five years if they opted for alternative therapies, while breast cancer patients using alternative therapies were five times as likely to die, and colorectal cancer patients were four times more likely — only 33 percent of alternative medicine patients survived, versus 79 percent of those who opted for conventional treatments.
Other limitations within the study include unmeasured confounders or selection bias, which could impact survival. However, as patients receiving alternative medicine were likely to be younger and more affluent (US medical insurance does not cover alternative treatments), the researchers believe this would not account for the survival differences observed.
The study also found patients who chose treatment alongside alternative medicine were more likely to die, and urged for greater scrutiny of the use of alternative medicine for cancer treatments.
"We now have evidence to suggest using alternative medicine in place of proven cancer therapies results in worse survival. It's our hope that this information can be used by patients and physicians when discussing the impact of cancer treatment decisions on survival," said lead author Skyler Johnson MD.
UK cancer charity Cancer Research has noted there are a number of reasons cancer patients pursue alternative treatments — including a desire for greater control. Sometimes patients feel their doctor makes all of the decisions about their treatment, and they themselves have little or no control over what happens to them. As a result, alternative and/or complementary therapy offers them the chance to take a more active role in their treatment and recovery.
Alternatively, using alternative therapy can become more important to individuals with advanced cancer if their conventional treatment is no longer helping to control it. Understandably feeling anxious and desperate, they hope alternative therapies might work.
In the UK alone, up to 33 percent of cancer patients use some sort of alternative therapy at some time during their illness. For some types, such as breast cancer, this number rises to almost a half.
Despite this, the charity, and, indeed medical science, is clear that there is no evidence to suggest that any type of complementary therapy prevents or cures cancer.