Many Cancer Patients Use Alternative Medicine, Studies Find

cancer and herbal medicine

Cancer patients often use alternative medicine.

The use of alternative and natural therapies in cancer care may be considered taboo among conventional medicine, but many cancer patients do not concur, new studies find.

Cancer patients questioned

For example, in a study from Morocco’s University of Marrakesh, researchers utilized anonymous questionnaires with 400 cancer patients. The researchers found that 71% of the patients were using some sort of alternative therapy behind the backs of their doctors.

In other words, few of them were discussing their use of alternative therapies with their doctor: Only 5% had discussions with their doctors about their alternative therapies.

Among those types of alternative therapies used, 36% of the cancer patients were using herbal medicine and 60% of patients were using some sort of religious therapy.

Over half – 53% – said that the alternative therapy were used to reduce their pain, while a third said they were using alternative therapies in order to boost their immune system.

Only 2% of the patients noted adverse effects from the use of alternative therapies.

U.S. surveys show similar findings

While this study was conducted among Moroccan cancer patients, U.S. surveys have also found many U.S. cancer patients are using alternative medicines. Some surveys have found that as many as 64% of U.S. cancer patients utilize alternative therapies – though the conventional conclusion is that about a third of U.S. cancer patients will use or try alternative medicine.

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To be fair, this is not to say that there is an acceptance of proof that alternative therapies are as successful as chemotherapy and radiation in terms of increasing survival rates.

In fact, many studies conducted on alternative therapies for cancer have been deemed as what one review of 214 studies of alternative medicine for cancer treatment called it, “poor quality.” That is, they showed differing endpoint conclusions and survival rate analyses that could compare the treatment to the standards of conventional medical treatments.

Another recurrent complaint about alternative medicine-for-cancer research is an inherent “bias” towards treatment success.

Part of the issue may be in defining “alternative medicine,” which has was noted by French researchers:

“The phrase ‘Alternative medicine’ is described as “practices used instead of standard medical treatment”. However, the definition of “Alternative medicine” outlined by World Health Organisation (WHO) encompasses all forms of healthcare provision, which usually lie outside the official health sector.”

Bias and alternative medicine cancer research

Speaking of “bias,” is it fair for the standards of the “official health sector” to be applied to those studies that measure the success of treatments “outside the official health sector”?

In fact, we find that alternative medicine approaches cancer completely differently than does conventional medicine. Alternative medicine typically seeks to stimulate or boost the immune system, while conventional cancer therapies typically depress the immune system while knocking out tumors through immune-suppressing drugs or radiation.

But alternative medicine also accomplishes a treatment approach not well considered by conventional medicine: That of cancer prevention by retaining a strong immune system. By boosting the immune system, we help prevent tumors from becoming malignant in the body. The reality is, small tumors grow in every body – healthy or not.

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But when it comes to a life-or-death cancer situation – where death is imminent unless the tumor is knocked out, is it smart to apply preventative alternative treatment at that point? Even if such treatment interferes with the attempt to knock the tumor out?

Patients should discuss alternative medicine with doctors first

This collision between conventional treatment and alternative treatment is specifically why every cancer patient should be discussing with their doctor any other therapies they are trying or want to try. It is imperative that the treatment providers are on the same sheet with the patient.

And while each cancer patient must ultimately decide for themselves which treatment strategy to take, it is imperative that conventional medicine opens more research funding to testing alternative therapies with cancer treatments using the same protocols and scientific rigor applied to conventional treatment research. Not doing so is extending the bias suggested by the research.

Such an obvious research bias (of not testing alternative medicine using the same protocols and rigor) must be removed before it is scientifically accurate to say that alternative medicines do not work for cancer treatment.

This is only fair given the amount of interest cancer patients have in trying alternative medicines.

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Tazi I, Nafil H, Mahmal L, Harif M, Khouchani M, Saadi Z, Belbaraka R, Elomrani A, Tahri A. Complementary medicine in cancer patients under treatment in Marrakech, Morocco: a prospective study. Bull Soc Pathol Exot. 2013 Sep 20.

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Wyatt G, Sikorskii A, You M. Self-reported use of complementary and alternative medicine therapies in a reflexology randomized clinical trial. Altern Ther Health Med. 2013 Sep-Oct;19(5):31-7.

Vickers AJ, Kuo J, Cassileth BR. Unconventional anticancer agents: a systematic review of clinical trials. J Clin Oncol. 2006 Jan 1;24(1):136-40.

Adams M, Jewell AP. The use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by cancer patients. Int Semin Surg Oncol. 2007 Apr 30;4:10.


  • Case Adams, Naturopath

    California Naturopath, Ph.D. in Natural Health Sciences, Doctorate in Integrative Health Sciences, Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. Diplomas in Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling, Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Colon Hydrotherapy, certificates in Pain Management and Case Management/Contact Tracing. Has authored more than 30 books and hundreds of periodical articles on natural medicine. Recreational activities include surfing, sailing, running, biking, swimming, SUPing, hiking. Contact: case(at)caseadams(dot)com. [email protected] Adams, Naturopath Case

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