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Many Breast Cancer Patients Try Alternative Treatments First

August 31, 2016

About 12 percent of women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime, but according to a recent study some of them likely will seek alternative treatment before trying chemo.

The study, conducted by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, involved 685 women under the age of 70 with early-stage breast cancer. Researchers tracked them for a year to determine how the use of alternative treatments — including vitamin and mineral supplements, acupuncture, yoga and meditation — affected their decision to undergo chemotherapy.

Doctors advised nearly half of the women to undergo chemotherapy, but after 12 months only 89 percent of them did. Of the remaining study participants who were given the option of chemotherapy, only 36 percent decided to pursue this course of treatment.

Eighty-seven percent of women in the study used alternative therapies, predominantly dietary supplements or yoga, meditation and other mind-body practices. A majority of the women used two types of alternative treatments, while nearly 40 percent of them used at least three of these therapies. Researchers said patients in the study who used dietary supplements were most likely not to initiate chemotherapy. The use of mind-body practices had no impact on when patients initiated chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy can be taxing both emotionally and physically and its side effects can be more difficult to deal with for some patients than the actual treatment. I understand the inclination for patients to explore their treatment options, but there’s a reason why chemotherapy has become part of the standard treatment course for cancer — it increases a patient’s chances of survival. Several studies have shown that initiating chemotherapy early in the treatment process increases survivorship. Even in those with late-stage disease, chemotherapy can help to ease symptoms (improve quality of life) and even prolong life.

Researchers said the study shows oncologists should consider discussing complementary and alternative medicines with patients during the decision-making process about whether to undergo chemotherapy. They also need to clearly explain to patients the risk they may be taking by delaying treatment and pursuing alternative therapies. The side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea and fatigue, are often at the forefront of many patients’ minds, which makes it difficult to clearly see the benefits of this treatment. As doctors, we can emphasize this for patients and give them all the information they need to make the best decision based on their prognosis.

To be clear, alternative therapies can be a suitable complement to traditional cancer therapies like chemotherapy and radiation. Through our Cancer Support Community, patients have access to resources such as acupuncture, oncology massage, meditation and other mind-body practices. These are used to help patients throughout the disease process.

Cancer is a treatable disease if we get to it early. Chemotherapy is one way we do this. For patients with early-stage disease, getting the right treatment in a timely manner is critical and it can make all the difference for their long-term survival.

Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women in the United States. However, with early diagnosis, breast cancer has a relative survival rate of better than 90 percent. Monthly self breast exams can help you be familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel. 

Download a self-examination guide here