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Breast Cancer + Alternative Medicine = Lower Survival

By Pallave Dasari

The internet allows greater broadcasting of false information about cancer cures, which means that women are treating their breast cancer with alternative therapies known to be the direct cause of preventable deaths.

In Australia, one-in-eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Medical specialists from surgery, oncology and radiotherapy together determine the best evidence-based medicine to attack the cancer effectively. Usually this involves a combination of medical interventions with strong clinical evidence of reducing and curing breast cancer. These medical advances have drastically reduced the death rate from breast cancer from 37% in 1982 to 19% in 2012.

Women with breast cancer who use alternative medicine and refuse medical treatment don’t do as well. The 5-year overall survival rate for women who refuse medical treatment for breast cancer is 43.2% compared with 81.9% for women who are treated medically. When such patients do agree to undergo surgery there has usually been a 20–30 week delay because of their prior use of alternative medicine.

Given these stark figures, why do women seek alternative rather than evidence-based treatment? Women are often shocked by the diagnosis, and nearly one-quarter then suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

The side-effects of medical treatments are challenging: chemotherapy and radiotherapy induce nausea, vomiting, hair loss, mouth ulcers, nerve damage, depression and “foggy” thinking. Surgery includes risks of nerve damage, lymphoedema and breast disfiguration. There is also fear of death and worry for their families.

Since the 1970s there has been an increasing trend (50– 90%) for cancer patients to see alternative medicine practitioners to cope with physical and psychological stress. The main reasons for this include patients feeling empowered for their health choices, a strong instinct for survival, the perception that alternative medicine is harmless, negative experiences, unmet needs with medicine, and the desire for a supportive relationship with practitioners.

This last point can reflect disengagement from the medical profession. Some women may not relate to or trust medical professionals, especially if they have had past negative experiences, or they may have an unsupportive relationship with their doctor. Other unmet medical needs of women include poor continuity of care, fear of pain and death, and lack of guidance in physical health. All these factors can drive patients to look for alternative advice.

Alternative medicine – an umbrella term – includes naturopathy, iridology, homeopathy, acupuncture and herbal remedies. Some alternative treatments cite partial evidence for efficacy but lack comprehensive validation by clinical trials to achieve medical consensus. The Australian government’s review into 18 natural therapies found there was either no or insufficient evidence that natural therapies were clinically effective in addressing various health conditions.

The internet has allowed alternative medicine practitioners to set up websites and social media profiles advocating therapies with no clinical benefits. These websites are greatly promoted but not regulated by health agencies, have no requirement for accurate content and can peddle medical misinformation.

A notorious case was the death of Jessica Ainscough, who treated her epithelioid sarcoma primarily with the Gerson Diet, which is an expensive therapy of fruits, vegetables and supplements to “detoxify” the body. Her mother, Sharyn Ainscough, also died of breast cancer when she followed her daughter’s advice to use the Gerson Diet. The American Cancer Society advises that cancer patients should avoid the Gerson Diet as it is harmful.

Use of alternative medicine is also linked to poor mental health among breast cancer patients, and its use in early stage breast cancer indicates greater psychological distress. Breast endocrine surgical consultants in Adelaide have told me that the number of breast cancer patients choosing alternative medicine as the primary treatment for their cancer has increased over the past 15 years.

We need a twofold strategy to address this issue. First, we need to increase support for these women within the medical system. Second, alternative medicine practitioners need to be held accountable for their targeting and deception of vulnerable patients.

Dr Pallave Dasari is a breast cancer immunologist with The University of Adelaide and The Queen Elizabeth Hospital.