Reasons for Alternative Medicine Use

There are few studies that have evaluated why patients with cancer choose to forgo conventional treatment and instead use alternative approaches. An older study interviewed 14 patients with cancer who refused all or part of the recommended conventional treatment approach and found that all patients reported that at least one reason for declining conventional therapy was to avoid damage or harm to their body.7 Many also felt that conventional treatment would not change their disease outcome. Some patients also reported having an unsatisfactory or alienating relationship with their health care providers.

Another study of 31 patients with cancer who either refused all or some conventional treatments or discontinued conventional therapy found that some factors included in these decisions were having a close friend or relative who died from cancer after undergoing conventional therapy and who had a poor experience at the time of diagnosis; personal beliefs; a need for control; concern about the side effects of conventional treatment; and good communication with health care providers.8

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Patients who add complementary medicine to their conventional treatments may do so for different reasons. For example, they may seek to help alleviate some of the side effects of cancer or anticancer treatment, or relief/an improved ability to cope with the psychological distress that cancer may cause.1

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Evidence to date suggests that replacing conventional anticancer treatments with alternative therapy is associated with a higher mortality rate and lower 5-year overall survival among patients with cancer. Adding complementary medicine to conventional therapies does not seem to influence mortality rates, unless patients refuse additional conventional approaches or refuse to continue receiving conventional therapies in conjunction with the decision to incorporate alternative methods. Nonetheless, as patients increasingly initiate conversations about alternative and complementary approaches,9 it’s important to communicate the differences between the approaches through the lens of survival outcomes.


  1. Qureshi M, Zelinski E, Carlson LE. Cancer and complementary therapies: current trends in survivors’ interest and use. Integr Cancer Ther. 2018;17(3):844-853.
  2. Neuhouser ML, Smith AW, George SM, et al. Use of complementary and alternative medicine and breast cancer survival in the Health, Eating Activity and Lifestyle Study. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2016;160(3):539-546.
  3. Karali Y, Demirkaya M, Sevinir B. Use of complementary and alternative medicine in children with cancer: effect on survival. Pediatr Hematol Oncol. 2012;29(4):335-344.
  4. Yun YH, Lee MK, Park SM, et al. Effect of complementary and alternative medicine on the survival and health-related quality of life among terminally ill cancer patients: a prospective cohort study. Ann Oncol. 2013;24(2):489-494.
  5. Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Use of alternative medicine for cancer and its impact on survival. JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst. 2018;110(1):121-124.
  6. Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Complementary medicine, refusal of conventional cancer therapy, and survival among patients with curable cancers. JAMA Oncol. 2018;4(10):1375-1381.
  7. Shumay DM, Maskarinec G, Kakai H, Gotay CC; Cancer Research Center of Hawaii. Why some cancer patients choose complementary and alternative medicine instead of conventional treatment. J Fam Pract. 2001;50(12):1067.
  8. Verhoef MJ, White MA. Factors in making the decision to forgo conventional cancer treatment. Cancer Pract. 2002;10(4):201-207.
  9. Tilburt J, Yost KJ, Lenz H-J, et al. A multicenter comparison of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) discussions in oncology care: the role of time, patient‐centeredness, and practice context [published May 17, 2019]. Oncologist. doi: 10.1634/theoncologist.2019-0093