When both my parents had cancer years ago, we actually contemplated alternative medicine. We had heard all the stories about chemotherapy – the side effects, the suffering. We didn’t want to put our parents through all that. What is alternative medicine actually?

Alternative medicine is treatment/s that are used instead of mainstream therapies.

It is also referred to as “integrative” or “complementary” medicine.

Many people think that it is those of us in the East who usually use more alternative medicine. But you would be surprised to know that 40% of Americans use some sort of alternative medicine.

Is it safer and more effective than traditional chemotherapy?

There was a recent article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute on this that suggests that this is not so.

Some researchers at the Yale Cancer Centre in the United States were interested in exactly why so many cancer patients pursued alternative medicine instead of conventional cancer treatment.

It is widely believed that conventional cancer treatment like chemotherapy and targeted therapies offer the best chance at a cure, or at least in extending life, but not many people have done research evaluating alternative medicine for cancer.

So the Yale researchers studied 840 patients with breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer – the most common cancers – in the US National Cancer Database.

Patients like the fact that alternative medicine seems more natural and non-toxic. They also believe that it boosts their immune system.

What did they find?

In the study, 280 patients who chose only alternative medicine were compared to 560 patients who had received conventional cancer treatment like surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

These patients were diagnosed from 2004 to 2013.

The researchers then studied the outcomes of these patients from these case notes.

In the group of patients who used only alternative medicine, there was a greater risk of death by a significant degree in all the cancers surveyed.

They then concluded that patients who chose alternative medicine were more likely to die.

What do you mean by “a significant degree”?

In the study, patients who chose alternative medicine were two times more likely to die than a patient who chose conventional treatment.

In the medical world of clinical trials and results, that is a very serious finding.

The Yale researchers also noted that in their medical practice, many cancer patients nowadays prefer to opt for alternative treatment first, thus delaying the time they start conventional treatment.

As a result, the cancer, which may initially be in stage 1 and easy to cure by conventional means such as surgery, might have spread to stage 4 by the time the patient presents to a doctor, as a result of delaying treatment.

But you are being very biased against alternative medicine. Many cancer patients prefer alternative medicine because chemotherapy kills!

That statement isn’t true. Chemotherapy has far more benefits than the risk of its side effects, and so many clinical trials prove that.

In Britain, they have actually researched why so many cancer patients prefer alternative medicine.

The main reasons are:

• Patients feel better when they use alternative medicine.

Chemotherapy and targeted therapies have many side effects that are documented, such as vomiting, hair loss and hand-foot syndrome, which are scary to many people, including caregivers.

Some of these side effects can be quite debilitating, but there are only very rare cases where they are severe enough to kill a patient.

But you have to look at everything as a risk-benefit ratio.

Yes, you may feel better when you take alternative medicine, but chances are higher that it also won’t do anything to retard your cancer growth and you will die faster.

• Patients sometimes use alternative medicine in addition to conventional medicine to reduce the side effects caused by the latter.

This is actually already in practice in many cancer hospitals, especially the use of acupuncture.

• Patients feel more in control when they take alternative medicine.

• Patients like the fact that alternative medicine seems more natural and non-toxic.

They also believe that it boosts their immune system.

It is true that alternative medicine may make a cancer patient feel better, more ‘natural’ and all that, but the fact remains that many of them have not been tested in clinical trials.

And the only large-scale trial conducted by Yale has shown that they can cause twice more deaths than conventional treatment!

Whatever your beliefs as a cancer patient or a caregiver, go in armed with information before you choose, because it may literally cost you your life.

Risks are all a matter of statistics. What may happen to one person may not happen to you, and vice versa.


Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.