Together we will beat cancer


Patients have the right to decide what treatment, if any, they want to have. But it’s incredibly important that the decisions people make are based on accurate information, allowing them to weigh up the pros and cons of the treatment options before them.

But where can patients get this accurate information? Search the internet, and you’ll find trustworthy, evidence-based sources (like our web pages and the NHS website). But you’ll also quickly land on many promises of miracle cancer cures. While there’s often no scientific evidence to back many of the miracle claims made online, counter arguments put forward by those selling or advocating for alternative therapies often state that ‘there’s no evidence to say they don’t work either’.

Proving that something definitely doesn’t work is much harder than showing something does. We’ve written several articles questioning the claims behind alternative treatments, conspiracy theories, and the harms that alternative therapies can cause patients.

In this post, we’re using ‘alternative’ to describe treatment that’s used instead of conventional medicine.

Now, a researcher in the US has taken a step towards collecting robust evidence to measure the harm of alternative therapy. And the numbers he has calculated have helped put an estimate on the negative impact alternative therapies might be having on survival.

‘This was personal for me’

Radiotherapy specialist Dr Skyler Johnson, from Yale, began digging around the harms of alternative therapies for cancer after his family was directly affected.

“It was during my second year of medical school when my wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma,” says Johnson. “Despite the fact I was training to be a doctor, I did what many people probably do. I was curious and searched the internet.”

Johnson was shocked by the amount of lies, misinformation, and to use a popularly coined phrase ‘fake news’ that his search generated.

“Thankfully my wife had great treatment – conventional medicine – and made a full recovery,” he says. “But it left me wondering, if I, as a doctor, felt taken aback by all the promises of miracle treatments, how do other people cope when facing the same situation? So this research was personal for me.”

As a cancer specialist, Johnson had a first-hand account of some of the problems alternative therapies were causing patients. It often meant people were “self-treating” symptoms and delaying their cancer diagnosis, or refusing cancer treatments that “we know work”, he says.

The key point here is that those cases are anecdotes from individual patients, which isn’t the same as robust evidence that alternative treatments are causing harm.

‘Alternative’ or ‘complementary’ – what’s the difference?

  • Alternative treatments: These are generally used instead of conventional medical treatment. There’s no good evidence from clinical trials that alternative treatments improve survival.
  • Complementary treatments: Patients can choose to use these alongside conventional treatment. There’s no good evidence they improve survival, but they can help some people feel better or help them cope with treatment.

It’s important to talk to your doctor if you are considering either alternative or complementary therapies – even complementary therapies can be harmful or react badly with other treatments. More here.

‘The data was there, I just needed to analyse it’

On top of his clinical training, Johnson spends weekends and evenings engrossed in his passion – using Big Data to find factors that have an impact on cancer survival. “The study took me 7 months to a year to complete. The data was there, I just needed to comb through and analyse it,” he says.

Johnson used the US National Cancer Database as a source of information. The database is a collection of patient records sent from more than 1,500 cancer hospitals across the US and includes more than 70% of all newly diagnosed cancer cases.

In this study, published this summer in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Johnson looked at the records of patients with one of the four most common US cancers – breast, prostate, lung, and bowel – that hadn’t spread. The doctors use codes to represent the treatments that patients have, and one of the codes is ‘unproven treatments given by non-medical therapists’.

“To truly understand the impact of alternative medicine, we only included people who had unproven treatments and no conventional medicine at all,” says Johnson. “Even if they don’t return to hospital after their diagnosis, if they die from their cancer their death record is matched to their file, so we still have this information.”

Among the millions of records, there were 281 patients who opted solely for what Johnson defined as alternative therapy.

Choosing alternative therapies reduces the chances of surviving cancer

The figures show that patients who opt for alternative therapies and decline conventional treatments are 2.5 times more likely to die within 5 years of being diagnosed. It’s a huge reduction in the chances of survival – Dr Skyler Johnson

“The figures show that patients who opt for alternative therapies and decline conventional treatments are 2.5 times more likely to die within 5 years of being diagnosed”, says Johnson. “It’s a huge reduction in the chances of survival.”

Although there is already a big difference in survival, the effect of declining conventional treatment might be an underestimate because the study only followed patients for 5 years. Two of the four cancers analysed (breast and prostate) are often slow growing so the gap in survival may widen further over time.

When Johnson looked at cancer types individually, the results became more interesting. “For low and intermediate risk prostate cancers, choosing alternative therapy didn’t have any impact. But many prostate cancers are slow-growing, plus a high proportion don’t even need treating because they won’t ever cause harm. So this actually makes perfect sense,” he says.

“When it came to lung cancer, patients who opt out of conventional medicine are more than twice as likely to die within 5 years.” And this small effect probably reflects lung cancer being so hard to treat; survival is poor even for patients who choose conventional treatment.

“But when we look at breast and bowel cancer, both of which have good survival due to effective treatments being available, patients who chose alternative therapies were over 5 times more likely to die from their cancer in the 5 years after their diagnosis,” says Johnson.

As well as only having followed the patients for a short period post diagnosis, the data might also underestimate the full harms of alternative therapies because the records only capture patients’ first treatment choice. Some people who chose alternative therapies at the beginning might have decided to return to conventional medicine if their disease worsened.

Lax legislation costs lives

When Johnson did some digging around the type of person more likely to opt out of conventional treatments, he found some interesting trends.

“Our analysis shows that patients opting for alternative therapies tend to be younger, female, in general better health, and have a higher income and level of education,” says Johnson.

“Furthermore, they more often live in areas in the US where legislation is more favourable towards practices offering alternative therapies, for example the West coast. This indicates that certain states in the US really need to do more when it comes to regulating alternative therapy practices, which form a multi-billion dollar industry.”

The growth of alternative, unproven therapies in regions of relative affluence and high levels of education also points to a failure of education around science – a problem not unique to the US. Many people are not being empowered to critically analyse scientific or medical claims.

“In a ‘post-truth era’, the mountain of misinformation available is just serving to confirm some people’s entrenched bias against big institutions, including medicine,” Johnson thinks. “But it’s my hope that studies like this can still reach and engage people who are unsure and seeking facts, and help them have better conversations with their doctors about their options.”

Our advice regarding alternative therapies

This is only one study from the US tracking patients with 4 types of cancer over 5 years following diagnosis. We’ll need bigger, longer studies to get a more reliable measure of the impact on survival for those who decline conventional medicine.

But Johnson’s research shows that for the cases in this study, choosing alternative therapy over conventional, evidence-based medicine reduced the chances of surviving.

“Cancer patients often go through a very difficult and emotional time,” says Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK.

“Patients can feel like there is nothing in their life that they can still control, and deciding to refuse conventional treatment and opt for an alternative therapy can sometimes give them back a sense of control.”

Doctors aim to be as truthful as possible with patients and give as much information as they can, so people with cancer can make informed decisions about what treatments they want to have. Sometimes this means being honest about there being no guarantees that a treatment will work, or in some circumstances that the best that can be achieved is extra time.

“Even if a treatment works for 99% of people, there’s still 1% who don’t benefit. Cancer patients can, understandably, find this uncertainty hard to deal with,” says Ledwick. “And for some people, the news their doctor gives them isn’t what they want to hear. In these circumstances, it’s understandable that claims made by those promoting alternative therapies might seem very beguiling.”

It’s against the law for individuals or companies to advertise any cancer treatment (whether proven to work or not) directly to patients in the UK. But the internet is global, and not all countries have similar regulations in place to protect patients from misleading advertisements. Unfortunately, this can leave the door open for some individuals and companies to exploit cancer patients.

“Some people selling alternative therapies are out to make money and there’s no proof their remedies work or, in some cases, are even safe,” says Ledwick.

We’ve also written before about how the harm of alternative therapies extends beyond people’s finances. It’s the risk of postponing or declining conventional treatments that might otherwise prolong or even save a patient’s life. It’s the harm that can be caused by travelling overseas when ill, forgoing palliative care to ease pain and other symptoms, and loss of precious time that could be spent with loved ones.

Every patient has the right to decide what treatments to have. But we want people to make these decisions based on discussions with qualified health professionals and factual information, not from unsubstantiated claims lacking any scientific evidence to back them up.



Johnson et al, 2017, JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst, Jan 1;110(1). doi: 10.1093/jnci/djx145

If you or someone you know has questions about cancer and treatment, please give our Cancer Information nurses a call – they’re on freephone 0808 800 4040, 9am-5pm Monday to Friday, or you can send them an email.


Dr Schlee April 14, 2018

It is difficult to know if treatments are safe or effective without randomized trials. Alternative medicine does help and more & more people getting the benefits of Alternative Medicine. But we should have to be concerned about the treatments first.

Jane B April 3, 2018

I went through chemo, surgery and radio (2009/10) – chemo totally compromised my immune, nervous and respiratory systems. I developed a haematoma on site of surgery – it is still there as they could not respirate it. It is large, very painful and I have had to live with these symptoms every day for 10 years.
I, too have browsed the Internet – it is scary how much fake and downright criminal information is there.
Even before treatment is discussed, patients are being delayed appointment and the amount of cancellations for surgery in the UK is incredible.
I would never go through that again, so have decided to go for what the medical world calls ‘alternative’ – this is the most logical and beneficial treatment for any disease or just for a great, healthy lifestyle for the whole family. A true legacy for future generations.
When someone stops being scared of those who dominate, and source of any disease is looked at and acted on, as with migraine, rather than a temporary treatment, we will all be in a much healthier, happier place.

Cliff Russell April 2, 2018

Cancer incidence is rising inexorably – now nearly 50% of us will get a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime. Cancer mortality has only dropped slightly (especially after the usual statistical trickery) – and this can mainly be credited to earlier diagnosis, not better survival. Surely you can see why people are so desperately seeking alternatives when they are faced with the dismal failure of orthodox medicine to get a grip on this epidemic?

Ed George March 31, 2018

Lives are at risk. Grow some balls cancerresearchuk. The law is an ass. Give people the information that they need. Not misinformation in fear of prosecution for honesty.

Hannah December 22, 2017

Actually amusing how the doctor writing this has used such a small amount of people over such a short amount of time to draw the conclusion that alternative and complimentary treatments do not have enough evidence to show they are worth doing. Talk about contradictory. Crazy. I understand that of course there are plenty of alternative therapies that are not safe. But, forgive me if I’m wrong, the side effects of “conventional ” treatments are very extreme and safe is not the first word that comes to mind- well not safe for the stomach as it causes vomiting and nausea, not safe for emotional wellbeing as it causes hair loss etc, not safe for driving as it causes exhaustion, bone deterioration, loss of feeling in your nerves, not to mention that once the conventional treatment is over you may well have the cancer return (because the doctors aren’t interested in treating the cause of the cancer, just the cancer cells themselves). I think Cancer Research is doing some great work but seriously needs a big wake up call with some of these articles around complimentary therapies and alternative treatments. The general public are not stupid. We know there is no “miracle cancer cure” but telling us to avoid alternative treatments is not helping us to “beat cancer sooner”. It’s actually delaying it.

Found one interesting quote from this article: “It’s against the law for individuals or companies to advertise any cancer treatment (whether proven to work or not) directly to patients in the UK.” So basically if there is a large scale private study over 20 years showing an alternative cancer treatment works for 99% of people with 0 side effects it would be illegal to tell people in the UK that this was an option for them as a cancer treatment. And my question at this point would be … WHY? ! This system is absolutely insane.

Oh and one more thing . The term “unproven treatments given by non-medical therapists” used to describe alternatives is also funny. The conventional treatments currently used may well be “proven” but how old is the data? And what exactly does it “prove” ? E.g. It might prove that patients live for another 2 weeks with a million awful side effects but that doesn’t mean it’s worth having! And non medical therapists are some of the best authorities to go to regarding cancer because they actually care about the whole person- nutrition, emotional wellbeing, side effects. In fact did you know that medical doctors do not have to study food as part of their degree? They are great at giving out pills and pills for the side effects of the first pills. But what about the root cause of cancer. It starts with our life style. What we eat, drink, etc how can we go to these people for advice when they haven’t been trained in something as basic as nutrition- and then make out that people who can advise us on our diets are the inferior “non medical therapists” giving us unproven information.

Once again this is a truly terrible article and I hope it doesn’t put people off using their own brains, doing their own research and deciding what is best for THEM.

Paul Davey November 20, 2017

Unbelievably ill-informed, biased scare-mongering – the propaganda machine roles on, all in the name of ‘science’. One has to wonder why you are so keen to debunk what you dismissively refer to as ‘alternative’ medicine. What, exactly, is ‘conventional’ medicine – and why do you imply it is the only real or correct choice that people have in choosing their treatment? What is it that scares you so? Once again we see the same old argument, masquerading as ‘science’ and ‘facts’. Exactly what are you classing as ‘alternative’ therapies in the unbelievably ill-informed and dangerous generalisations you are making in this article? Anything that isn’t radiation or chemical based? Of the therapies you analysed, under what conditions and for what types of cancer were they studied? Were any studies of these treatments actually funded to ensure a balanced data set – allowing actual comparison? You talk about fake news – this is hugely misleading and irresponsible propaganda. You sir, should be ashamed.

David Miles November 7, 2017

What do you do when your oncologist says no more can be done, DIE or try anything to save a loved one.