Using Alternative Medicine Alone Has Major Risks


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A recent study on alternative medicine and cancer out of the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research (COPPER) Center at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center, suggests that cancer patients who opt out of conventional therapy (chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, surgery, for example), and select “alternative medicine” instead, have higher risks of death. The study was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) describes alternative health as “therapeutic approaches taken in place of traditional medicine and used to treat or ameliorate disease.” Therapeutic approaches could include Ayurveda, homeopathy, massage therapy, herbology, naturopathy, and more.

The term Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is used when alternative treatments are used together with conventional therapies. Integrative Medicine is a term used to describe the combination of mainstream medical treatments with CAM that is done with support of quality, scientific evidence for effectiveness and safety. These terms are discussed more below.

About the study

The study was initiated because there is little evidence currently available on alternative therapies. Therefore, when a patient is seeking decision-making advice, they are lacking valuable, potentially life-saving information. This study is the start of the conversation to provide support for patients who are seeking options outside of conventional treatments.

The researchers studied 840 patients with breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer in the National Cancer Database (NCDB), which represents about 70% of newly diagnosed cancers in the country.

In the study, roughly 12% were colorectal cancer patients. Researchers compared the outcomes of patients from 2004-2013: 280 patients who chose alternative medicine to 560 patients who had received conventional treatment.

Study Findings

  • They found a greater risk of death among patients who chose treatment only with alternative medicine.
  • More specifically, those who received only alternative medicine were 2 1/2 times more likely to die during the 5 1/2 year follow up period than those who selected conventional treatments.
  • Colorectal cancer patients specifically, saw four times an increase.

Is Alternative Medicine Popular?

As mentioned previously, there have been no scientifically sound studies done to prove the efficacy of alternative treatments to cure cancer (or lead to cancer remission). However, there is a rising number of patients who opt for alternative therapy as their only approach to cancer treatment.

Some patients may opt for this option due to fears of side effects of conventional treatments, knowledge of the dangers of secondary cancers as a result of conventional treatment, personal religious or personal belief systems, distrust of the medical system, or because they have exhausted all conventional treatment and prefer to try this next prior to (or after) participation in a clinical trial.

Because patients are encouraged to talk to their doctors and participate in shared-decision making – there is no right or wrong decision when it comes to cancer treatment. After all, it is the patient’s body that is being treated, and doctors should be respectful of their choices. However, there are some doctors who would rather refer their patient opting for alternative treatment to a different treating oncologist rather than support their decision of rejecting conventional therapy. Again, this may be largely due to the lack of evidence surrounding the benefits of this type of treatment.


You may have run across the occasional story detailing a person’s recovery from cancer through the use of alternative medicine. While these are often true, they are not the norm, and results cannot be replicated through randomized clinical trials, which are the backbone of quality research. Rather, these stories are anecdotal.

While the recent research study carried out by Yale clearly states that those who opt for alternative medicine in place of of proven cancer therapies have worse survival, there is plenty of evidence in support of integrative medicine, which is the use of alternative medicine in conjunction with traditional, scientifically proven treatment.

What has been proven?

While alternative treatments have been shown in this study to increase risk of death, there are reputable studies that have shown the benefits of integrative medicine or CAM when used alongside traditional, conventional medicine.

For example, meditation and relaxation techniques are shown to reduce anxiety and ease mood disorders, acupuncture has been shown to minimize effects of chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting, reduce fatigue, and manage pain, yoga has been shown to improve sleep, reduce fatigue, and increase quality of life, and cannabis (which is now available for medical use in many states, prescribed as a conventional therapy) has shown benefits for reducing pain, increasing appetite, and reducing the effects of nausea. (For more examples, visit The American Cancer Society.)

Many of these methods can be safely used to improve side effects (like pain and bowel issues), which can increase quality of life tremendously. Talk to your doctor to learn more about integrative therapies that are safe for you to try.

When looking for a practitioner, if they are not affiliated with your cancer center, ensure that they are qualified and licensed by your state, and have worked with cancer patients before. There are certain types of alternative treatments that have been shown to be ineffective and even dangerous for colorectal cancer patients. Some of these methods, as described by Dr. Lisa Corbin in our CAM webinar, include:

Integrative Cancer Centers

Many cancer centers now have Integrative Centers that offer scientifically proven alternative therapies to cancer patients. Some examples include the University of California San Francisco, MD Anderson and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

This type of center has a focus on treating the whole patient – mind, body, and spirit – in a place where your entire medical team can be kept in the loop of your cancer and your specific needs.

Learn More and Stay Up to Date!

We know that this post will cause some controversy – and want to ensure that all those with a cancer diagnosis have the ability to make their own cancer treatment decisions.

If you have specific questions, please leave a comment below or contact us.

Additional Resources:

Fight CRC Blog with Dr. Lisa Corbin

Integrative Medicine

Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine

Fight CRC's Integrative Medicine Fact Sheet

2 thoughts on “Using Alternative Medicine Alone Has Major Risks

  1. We live in a time when the trust for institutions has become damaged, and there are many cases where this is with good reason. Unfortunately the replacing of hard science with antidotal evidence can also get results that are not in the best interest of health and well being. There is a balance that needs to be found, and it is not very likely that any one person or method has all of the necessary information to be correct every time. Thus, open discussion and the comparing of scientific results that will lead to better understanding is the answer… even if we don’t like it.

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