US Survey: 39% Say Alternative Therapies Can Cure Cancer

Nick Mulcahy

October 30, 2018

Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) "somewhat" or "strongly" agree that cancer can be cured solely through "alternative" therapies, such as oxygen therapy, diet, and herbs, without standard cancer treatments, according to a national survey commissioned by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

The survey, which probed public opinion about a variety of cancer-related issues, was conducted online by the Harris Poll in July and August 2018. It involved 4887 US adults aged 18 years and older. Among the respondents were 1001 persons who currently have cancer or who have had cancer in the past.

ASCO gave top billing to the survey responses about alternative therapies. "Correcting widespread misinformation about cancer treatments" is one of a number of critical, urgent issues in oncology, said the organization's president, Monica Bertagnolli, MD, in a press statement.

These findings are not only shocking but incredibly disturbing. Dr Skyler Johnson

"These findings are not only shocking but incredibly disturbing," said Skyler Johnson, MD, of the Yale Cancer Center at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who was approached for comment.

However, Johnson added that an "actual [treatment] decision" — and its "life-limiting consequences" — are different from answering a survey, which has "virtually no negative consequences."

Still, the survey results are proof of the "rampant misinformation" about cancer treatments among the public, said Johnson.

Cancer patients are "often inundated" with recommendations about alternative medicine cures, he said, from well-meaning friends, family members, and even random acquaintances, "despite no evidence to support these claims.

"My wife experienced this first hand through her cancer diagnosis. My brother-in-law is experiencing it now during his cancer treatment," said Johnson.

Johnson emphasized that a strong belief in the curative powers of alternative medicine for cancer can be disastrous.

He and colleagues reported a study last year that restrospectively analyzed outcomes in patients with early-stage cancers of various types and found a 2.5-fold higher risk for death among those who rejected conventional medicine and received only alternative treatments, compared with those who received conventional cancer treatment. When they conducted an analysis of specific cancer types, the risk was even higher — a sixfold increased risk for death among breast cancer patients and a 4.5-fold increase among colorectal cancer patients who used only alternative therapies.

Alarming Findings

"If this survey accurately reflects beliefs of the American public, it is alarming that so many mistakenly believe that alternative medicine can cure cancer," said David Gorski, MD, PhD, of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, who is also managing editor of Science-Based Medicine .

The ASCO survey also found that younger people are the most likely to believe that alternative medicine alone can cure cancer. Nearly half of survey respondents aged 18 to 37 years and aged 38 to 53 years (47% and 44%, respectively) responded that they "somewhat" or "strongly" agree that cancer can be cured solely through alternative therapies, without standard cancer treatments. "It's particularly alarming that such views appear to be more prevalent among younger people," said Gorski.

"I also can't help but wonder how much of this is due to the rise of belief in conspiracy theories that seems to have occurred over the last several years. After all, the belief in natural cures 'they' don't want you to know about or that big pharma is hiding in order to preserve their profits is a long-standing conspiracy theory," he told Medscape Medical News.

Misinformation about alternative cancer treatments is not limited to the United States.

This week, Liz Ball, MD, an oncoplastic breast surgeon in Suffolk, United Kingdom, tweeted that an alternative cancer treatment flier was "pushed through her letter box" at home. The flier advertised a 1-day seminar (cost: ₤30, lunch not included).

Ball, who tweets under the name Liz O'Riordan and is the coauthor of the Complete Guide to Breast Cancer (Vermilion Publishing), posted the flyer online. The professionally executed promotion read: "Cancer: The Latest Breakthroughs/Are chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery really the answers to cancer? What natural, non-toxic therapies can work, and why have these been marginalised."

O'Riordan said she was "slightly tempted to go and stir up trouble from the audience."

More About the Survey

In the ASCO survey, participants were asked to agree or disagree with the statement, "Cancer can be cured solely through alternative therapies, without standard cancer treatments."

Previously, the participants had been told that "alternative therapies could include but are not limited to 'natural' cancer treatments such as enzyme therapy or oxygen therapy, diet, vitamins/minerals/herbs, et cetera."

They were also told that "standard cancer treatments could include but are not limited to surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, [and] hormone-based therapies."

The ASCO survey also revealed that 57% of Americans say that, faced with a cancer diagnosis, they would be most concerned about the financial impact on their families or about paying for treatment; 54% said they would be most concerned about dying or about cancer-related pain and suffering.

Responses in the survey also show that there is support for measures aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs. For example, 88% of those surveyed agreed that Medicare should directly negotiate prescription drug prices with manufacturers, and 77% agreed that US residents should be able to buy cancer drugs from pharmacies in other countries.

Follow Medscape senior journalist Nick Mulcahy on Twitter: @MulcahyNick.

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