Alternative Medicine Beliefs: How Far Will Cancer Patients Go for Alternative Results?

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Nearly 4 in 10 Americans surveyed said they believe alternative remedies can cure cancer, according to a 2018 ASCO survey.
Nearly 4 in 10 Americans surveyed said they believe alternative remedies can cure cancer, according to a 2018 ASCO survey.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans surveyed — more than one in three — believe cancer can be cured using alternative or complementary remedies, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), despite evidence that pursuing alternatives to evidence-based cancer treatment can reduce survival time. An unknown number of patients pursue alternative remedies that might interfere with evidence-based treatment efficacy, and they rarely tell their cancer care team. Some delay evidence-based care, believing that the latest “cancer cure” seen on social media will cure their disease.

Patients encounter a potentially bewildering array of supposed miracle cures on social media, and more than one-third believe what they read. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans surveyed said they believe alternative remedies can cure cancer, according to the ASCO 2018 Cancer Opinions Survey.1 Among younger Americans — 17 to 37 years old — 47% believe cancer can be cured solely through alternative remedies, without standard cancer treatment.1 By some estimates, as many as 8 in 10 patients with cancer use some form of alternative medicine, such as herbal or vitamin supplements, yoga, or acupuncture.2

“That percentage is astounding,” said Suzie Siegel, a gynecologic sarcoma survivor and patient advocate. “Cancer patients are inundated with advice, including a lot on alternative medicine. One friend insisted that I try Ayurvedic medicine.”

Caterpillars of the Tibetan plateau ghost moth that have become encased in a parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, are worth more than their weight in gold, thanks largely to the unevidenced but widespread belief that they can cure cancer.3 (Along with climate change, the resulting consumer demand and overharvesting appear to be driving the fungus extinct, according to a recent report.3)

Pressure to Think Outside the Box

Such beliefs can be downright dangerous. Far from curing cancers, use of alternative remedies is associated with an increased likelihood of refusing conventional, evidence-based care for curable cancers — and a higher risk of death.4  

But social media platforms such as Facebook have given dubious claims about easy miracle cures a growing audience of patients and well-intentioned family and friends.

“Friends may recommend an alternative treatment on social media just as they might in person,” Siegel said. “The difference is that social media lets you hear from a multitude of friends in a short period of time, increasing the chances you'll hear something crazy. People reading Twitter at random, for example, come across promotions of alternative “cures.” Even some award-winning newspapers allow online ads that tout inaccurate health claims.”

The proliferation of predatory and pseudoscientific journals online has further blurred the boundaries between the scientifically credible and snake oil, online.5

“I've talked to patients who were nauseated or losing weight because of strict diets or the number of supplements they were taking,” Siegel said.

Supposed herbal remedies for melanoma range from eggplant and frankincense to turmeric, black raspberry, milk thistle — and cannabis.6  

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