When it comes to cancer treatment, it’s important to know the risks and benefits of all the medicines you’re taking. This is especially true of alternative therapies such as herbs, homeopathy, acupuncture and more that may promise to replace standard medical treatment. In fact, a new study from the Yale Cancer Center reports that cancer patients who use alternative therapies instead of medical treatments are more likely to die as a result of their illness.

The Food and Drug Administration, medical professionals and cancer advocates have long warned that unproven treatments can lure patients away from standard medical care that can save their lives. This latest research set out to find out exactly what the risks of using alternative treatments are with regard to cancer survival.

The researchers, and Yale’s news release about the study refer to “complementary” therapies, but many experts make a distinction between alternative therapies used instead of standard medical treatment and complementary therapies used along with recommended medical treatment.

For the study, Yale researchers looked at the medical records of nearly 2 million people with cancer. Of these, a small sample size––just 258 people––reported using alternative therapies. Their medical records were then compared with the records of more than 1,000 patients who did not use such therapies.

Published in JAMA Oncology, the findings showed that people who used herbs, homeopathy, naturopathy or Chinese medicine were, in fact, more likely to refuse at least some standard cancer treatment including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or hormone therapy. And while using such alternatives to complement standard treatment caused no apparent harm, patients who opted out of standard medical care in favor of alternative therapies were about twice as likely to die of their cancer.

Interestingly, those who chose alternatives tended to be younger women with more education and more money than those who sought out only standard cancer treatment. The study also showed that up to two-thirds of all cancer patients they surveyed believed that alternative therapy might prolong life and that one-third thought it could cure the disease––a deeply troubling finding considering the facts. 

That said, researchers also noted that complementary therapies such as massage, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation have been shown to improve quality of life. The report ends by suggesting that doctors not shun less conventional therapies altogether but to listen more closely to patients who use them to ensure that they are aware of all the risks and benefits.

Click here to read more about safe complementary therapies to use along with medical treatment.