A new Yale study quantifies the danger cancer patients face in choosing to pursue alternative medicine rather than traditional cancer treatments.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine studied data from the National Cancer Database on patients diagnosed with breast, prostate, lung or colorectal cancer, according to Cary Gross, a professor at the medical school and co-author of the study. They then compared the outcomes of those who chose alternative medicine alone to the outcomes of those who chose conventional cancer therapy, Gross said. Skyler Johnson, a resident at Yale New Haven Hospital and the study’s lead author, said that breast, prostate and colorectal cancers are considered very curable when detected and treated early. By comparing patients’ risk of death within five years of diagnosis, the researchers were able to determine how risky delaying conventional treatment is.

After comparing the outcomes of 280 patients who chose alternative medicine to 560 who chose conventional therapy, the researchers found that those who chose alternative medicine alone were two and a half times more likely to die overall. They were five times more likely to die if they had breast cancer, four times more likely if they had colorectal cancer and twice as likely if they had lung cancer, Johnson said.

“It made sense to me that patients who pursued alternative medicine alone were more likely to do poorly,” said James Yu, a professor of therapeutic radiology at the Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study. “It’s basically like letting the cancer grow untreated while you take snake oil.”

Johnson first became familiar with alternative medicine when his wife was diagnosed with cancer while he was a medical student at Michigan State University. Thanks to his medical background, Johnson said he was able to identify much of the false information provided online regarding alternative cancer treatments. When he began practicing medicine years later, however, he began to meet patients who had chosen to forgo conventional cancer therapy in favor of alternative remedies. Many of these patients returned to meet with doctors after the failure of those remedies, at which point their cancer was at a later stage and potentially incurable, he added.

Conventional cancer treatment generally consists of elements of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, said Henry Soo-Min Park, an assistant clinical professor of Therapeutic Radiology at the Yale School of Medicine, and co-author of the study. These therapies, while widely considered the most effective means of treating cancer, often have harsh side effects that cause some to seek out alternative therapies not recommended by the medical community, he added. A significant proportion of those who chose alternative medicine were in better physical shape and of higher socioeconomic status. Had they chosen conventional therapies, it is expected that their outcomes would have been better than the general populace, Park said. The trend of individuals distrusting medical advice in the field of cancer treatment is one Yu likens to the newfound popularity of the anti-vaccination movement.

“I think people just don’t trust expertise these days. Does medicine need to do a better job explaining the risks and benefits of treatment options to patients? Probably,” Yu said. “On the other hand, I think alternative medicine providers need to be honest and data driven. They need to realize that their wild claims can be harmful.”

He went on to describe alternative medicine as a multibillion-dollar industry that preys on cancer patients who are afraid of traditional medicine. Unlike licensed medical providers, naturalistic healers are not considered accountable in providing effective treatment, Johnson said. As a result, there is a glut of information online regarding nonmedically supported cures for cancer, including everything from vitamin supplements to acupuncture, he added. The intended impact of a study like this is to save lives by encouraging people to be more critical of alternative cancer therapies, Park said.

“My hope is that there are a group of individuals who are on the fence and that a paper like this will help them make the decision that will cure their cancer.” Johnson said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States.

Contact Maya Chandra at maya.chandra@yale.edu .