A new study from the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research (COPPER) Center at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center says patients who choose alternative therapy as a treatment for curable cancers instead of conventional cancer treatment have a higher risk of death. The findings were reported online by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers studied 840 patients with breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal cancer in the National Cancer Database (NCDB), a joint project of the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society. The NCDB represents approximately 70 percent of newly diagnosed cancers nationwide. Researchers compared 280 patients who chose alternative medicine to 560 patients who had received conventional cancer treatment.

The researchers studied patients diagnosed from 2004 to 2013. By collecting the outcomes of patients who received alternative medicine instead of chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation, they found a greater risk of death.

There is increasing interest by patients and families in pursuing alternative medicine as opposed to conventional cancer treatment. Although it is widely believed that conventional cancer treatment will provide the greatest chance at cure, there is limited research evaluating the effectiveness of alternative medicine for cancer.

While many cancer patients use alternative therapy in addition to conventional cancer treatments, little is known about patients who use alternative therapy as their only approach to treating their cancer. However, the integrative medicine community has widely accepted a holistic approach to cancer treatment. By combining conventional and alternative therapies, practitioners can achieve better outcomes and an improved quality of life for their patients before and after cancer treatments.

Further, practitioners must show greater scrutiny for research, especially those that may be financially backed by pharmaceutical companies. The patient’s best interest should be the focus of treatment, says Nancy Gahles, DC, CCH, RSHom(NA), OIM

“It is apparent that the conversation about true integrative cancer care has to be extended to include nascent practices that have value, clinical outcomes, and patient satisfaction,” said Gahles. “We cannot rely solely on evidence-based research of pharmaceutical interventions, as these are [often] conducted by interested parties with bias regarding financial considerations, as well as questionable and objectionable clinical outcomes.”

The Cancer Treatment Centers of America, for example, offers cancer patients a personalized and comprehensive approach to treatment. In conjunction with conventional therapies, they offer patients integrative care in pain management, nutrition therapy, and spiritual support. The priority should not be dismissing alternative therapies altogether, but rather how practitioners can incorporate them to best care for the patient.