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The role of complementary therapies in cancer treatment

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, there are no shortage of people willing to give you their two cents on what they think will help you survive or cure your cancer.

“You need to cut out all sugar!  Cancer LOVES sugar!”

“Do you want the number for the reiki healer that treated my aunt before she died?”

Wait…so your aunt died?

“I heard about a woman who had surgery and chemo, then did Chinese herbs and the herbs cured her!”

My personal favourite this old conspiracy theory…

“Big pharma knows how to cure cancer but they don’t because they’re making too much money.”

The reality? The cost of cancer is enormous both to society and economies. Anyone who can “cure cancer” will have money thrown at them from all angles. No one is withholding this info because of money.

You don’t have to get very far into the shadier corners of the web to find people spruiking an anti-medical, anti-science agenda. Facebook abounds with “wellness warriors” and instagram influencers selling their juice cleanses to cure whatever ails you. And I totally understand that when people are desperate or confused or suffering the side effects of conventional medical treatments, some of these options can start to sound appealing. Sadly, that desperation can lead to some fatal consequences.

A recent data analysis completed at Yale University found that those who had opted for non-traditional “treatments” rather than conventional medicine, were twice as likely to die from their cancer. Stories of cure or survival because of eschewing conventional treatments in favour of alternative medicine, were simply not supported by the data. Tracking patients over five years, they found that over 78% of patients who’d had conventional treatments were still alive, versus a much lower survival rate for those who’d chosen alternative treatments, of 55%. In the case of breast cancer, one of the most treatable cancers, the threat of dying from cancer was increased five times for those who opted out of conventional treatments. Five times!

Another worrying sign in the study, was that those more likely to opt for alternative treatment paths were younger, affluent, educated women – precisely the audience that derives their “inspo” from instagram and other unregulated social channels.

None of this is to say that some alternative therapies cannot complement conventional treatments. But certainly, for me, it’s about being complementary, and not a replacement.

In recent times, holistic treatment centres like the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Sydney or the ONJ Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne have adopted an approach that sees patients have access to validated complementary therapies alongside their conventional treatments. The Kinghorn Cancer Centre, a joint facility of The Garvan Institute of Medical Research and St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, also offers a range of therapies to oncology patients including exercise physiology, massage and acupuncture.  For some patients, these therapies may help to alleviate certain symptoms or deliver a better quality of living with cancer.

There’s no doubt that eating healthy food and taking exercise during treatment is a good thing. It can be lovely and relaxing to have an aromatherapy massage or meditate. By all means feel great for doing those things, but please do not ignore the science that has been developed to save lives. Unfortunately there are snake oil salesmen out there ready to take advantage of people’s desperation. Australia has seen our fair share of these in recent memory. But you can avoid the trap they are setting with false promises and “inspirational” pictures, by taking on all information offered you with a critical eye and making sure your decisions are backed up by peer-reviewed high quality research.

As Tim Minchin the Australian performer has been quoted as saying, “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work?  Medicine!”

Here’s a link to a news report with more info about what the data study was able to show here.

It’s very important if you’re utilising complementary therapies as part of your treatment plan that you tell your oncologist so they can make recommendations or adjustments to your medical treatments as required.

For more information on the latest breakthroughs in medical research into cancer and other chronic illnesses, there’s some great news to be found on Garvan’s website, linked to here. 



By |2018-07-30T17:13:44+10:00July 30th, 2018|News, Research|0 Comments

About the Author:

Rachael Lonergan is the founder of CanDo. She is an advertising executive, pet mum and enthusiastic but not-very-good yoga devotee who lives in Sydney, Australia.