A recent study with almost 2 million subjects evaluated the effectiveness of Complementary Medicine in fighting cancer. CM is that supposedly harmless stuff like yoga and essential oils and homeopathy taken in addition to standard, tested, genuine medicine — stuff that you’d think wouldn’t hurt (although it wouldn’t actually help, either, except maybe in your emotional well-being), except, ooops, it did.
Findings In this cohort study of 1 901 815 patients, use of complementary medicine varied by several factors and was associated with refusal of conventional cancer treatment, and with a 2-fold greater risk of death compared with patients who had no complementary medicine use.
Meaning Patients who received complementary medicine were more likely to refuse other conventional cancer treatment, and had a higher risk of death than no complementary medicine; however, this survival difference could be mediated by adherence to all recommended conventional cancer therapies.
That last paragraph is important: sure, aromatherapy isn’t going to harm you unless you use it as an excuse to avoid conventional treatments. And, unfortunately, from the statistics it seems that a lot of people were doing that, giving the overall group a 2-fold greater risk of dying. I think it’s important to note that this is a statistical assessment — supplementing your chemo with traditional Chinese medicine won’t kill you directly, it just puts you in a group that contains many members who will defy medical advice, and end up dead earlier.
I tried to poke a few holes in their conclusions, which is fairly easy to do in this kind of study, but the authors kept foiling me. One concern I had was that maybe their results were biased by the fact that people whose conventional treatments were failing were more likely to turn to desperate, unlikely treatments — so the results weren’t so much “CM causes people to neglect good treatments” as “failing treatments cause people to try CM”. They had an answer.
As patients receiving CM were more likely to be female, younger, more affluent, well educated, privately insured, and healthier, we hypothesize that our sample was biased in favor of greater survival for patients who used CM (vs no CM).
I guess it makes sense. If you’re intentionally taking a placebo, you probably think it is actually going to help you, and it’s that delusion that’s going to make you more willing to turn down effective, advantageous therapies, especially if they’re going to cause you more discomfort. One thing about CM is that it’s always mostly pleasant and doesn’t challenge the patient in any way. It may be doing harm by increasing complacency about a deadly disease.