One-third of cancer patients try alternative treatments, and many don’t tell their doctors

Some 33.3% of cancer patients add their own alternative treatment regimen to whatever conventional cancer care they’re receiving—and almost 30% of those don’t tell their doctors they’re doing so.

So found the authors of a study published online April 11 in JAMA Oncology.

The work builds on research released last year from Yale showing that cancer patients who used alternative treatments were more likely to refuse at least one part of their conventional care. As a result, they were more likely to die.

In the new study, a team led by Nina Sanford, MD, of the University of Texas used data from the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey to calculate the proportion of patients with cancer and cancer survivors using “complementary and alternative medicines.”

They also looked at the rates at which these patients withheld some or all of that information from physicians.

Sanford and colleagues found younger patients and women were more likely to use their own methods and concoctions—not only nutritional supplements and herbal preparations but also acupuncture, meditation and yoga—in hopes of optimizing their chances for a good outcome.

Many of these respondents said they didn’t tell their physicians because either the physicians hadn’t asked or the patients felt there was no need to mention their adjunctive self-care.

In a news item from UT Southwestern Medical Center, David Gerber, MD, said cancer patients are unwise to keep mum about self-directed supplement regimens, as homeopathic remedies can interfere with medically directed treatments.

Herbal supplements in particular “may interact with the medicines we’re giving, and through that interaction it could alter the level of the medicine in the patient,” Gerber said. “If the levels get too high, then toxicities increase, and if the levels get too low, the efficacy would drop.”

The news item quotes a cancer patient who was upfront with her doctors but knows many fellow cancer patients who aren’t. The patient said every person in her cancer support group uses some kind of alternative medicine.

“It’s what we can control. We can’t control the whole cancer,” she said. “It helps because it takes your mind off just thinking about it.”

For many the study will call to mind the deaths of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and comedian Andy Kaufman, both of whom used alternative treatments for cancer and looked to “Western medicine” too late into their respective battles to save their lives.