Risks of Alternative Medical Treatment for Colon Cancer

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

Colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, is the second most common cause of cancer-related death in America. Affecting roughly 4% of men and women, this disease has a 65%, five-year survival rate, with that rate being much higher in low-risk cases, and much lower in high-risk cases.

Thanks to preventative measures like these, the rate of new cases as well as the death rate have fallen at a slow but steady pace—roughly 2% per year. However, although screening methods have improved drastically over the last 20 years, colon cancer remains a difficult disease to manage.

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With statistics like these, it is understandable patients wish to seek out the best treatment possible. When seeking out the best option for their family, patients consider their quality of life, their survival chances, and the comfort and peace-of-mind of their loved ones.

When faced with a choice between traditional therapies, alternative medicine, or a combination of both, it is often difficult for patients to know which direction to take.

What Is Alternative Medicine?

Alternative medicine is described as healthcare and treatment practices that eschew the use of surgery or drugs. Where colon cancer is concerned, this might include chemotherapy, radiation, or various surgeries.

When treatment options are looked at individually, alternative medicine can refer to many things.

  • Aromatherapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Chiropractic
  • Acupuncture
  • Limited dietary regimen
  • Eastern medicine
  • Vitamins or supplements

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it shows a broad range of the types of therapies that might be prescribed by holistic or homeopathic providers. It is true that any of these therapies might provide specific benefits. For instance, certain types of aromatherapy might provide relief from nausea or pain. Massage therapy or meditation might offer a release of anxiety or stress related to a cancer diagnosis. Vitamins and supplements can provide a greater source of nutrition. This, along with a proper dietary regimen, can offer numerous benefits such as renewed energy, less fatigue, and more strength.

However, alternative medicine on its own is rarely effective in treating colorectal or other types of cancer.

Are There Specific Risks Involved?

There are multiple reasons a person might seek out alternative treatments. Many patients fear the side effects associated with traditional therapy. These might include nausea, stomach upset, or hair loss. A patient’s aversion to traditional therapy might be due to the fear of a weakened immune system, or even the risk of secondary cancers. Some patients might simply be distrustful of modern medicine. Other patients have exhausted all traditional treatments available, and this causes them to seek out alternative therapy.

Despite these reasons, the risks involved with choosing alternative medicine as a sole treatment plan are notable. Statistically, colon cancer patients who opt for alternative medicine alone have more than quadruple the chance of dying during the first five years after diagnosis, versus those who choose traditional treatments.

A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute indicated that those who chose alternative treatments over traditional therapies have a notably higher risk of death. While an occasional success story might seem to indicate proof that alternative medicine is a viable option, these are abnormal cases. For every successful example, there are multiple examples of failure.

Can Alternative Medicine Be Used Effectively?

Alternative treatments can have benefits. Providers today have taken note of the positive experiences reported by patients across the board. This has led many treatment centers to adopt Complementary and Alternative Medicine plans, also known as CAM.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine is defined as the use of traditional treatments in combination with alternative treatments. For example, treatment centers might employ aromatherapy to combat nausea associated with chemotherapy regimens. Acupuncture, meditation, and chiropractic might be prescribed for a patient experiencing pain. Specific diet and supplemental instructions might be given to a patient fighting a loss of appetite, food aversions, or other conditions associated with their traditional treatments.

These and other uses of alternative medicine can complement a conventional treatment plan.

What Do Studies Show Us?

Statistics show that anywhere between 30%-75% of colon cancer patients opt for a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) regimen. While there is no evidence to suggest this option increases survival rates, studies indicate those using a CAM approach have a significantly increased quality of life during their treatments.

Alternative therapies during the treatment of colon cancer can offer relief from those experiencing bowel issues, sleeplessness, pain, nausea, and many other issues. These treatments, in conjunction with conventional therapy, can offer a patient relief from discomfort and hope for their future.

If a colon cancer patient wishes to consider alternative options, it is a good idea to be open with their healthcare provider so that trustworthy options can be considered. Patients should remember that all treatments should be approved by the medical team to be sure nothing will interfere with the prescribed treatment plan. This is because some alternative options might even be harmful to colorectal patients.

  • Colonic hydrotherapy
  • Coffee enemas
  • Chelation therapy
  • Certain vitamins or supplements

When considering alternative possibilities, patients should keep in mind that holistic or homeopathic practitioners should be licensed. They must also be qualified to work with cancer patients. You can find a list of possible questions to ask your provider, as well as considerations to help you avoid fraudulent practitioners, by visiting The American Cancer Society.

Overall, the risks associated with alternative medicine as a standalone treatment for colon cancer outweigh any possible benefits. However, those seeking alternative medical options might find satisfaction in discussing with their healthcare provider the possibility of an integrated approach.

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