Complementary Medicine Use Tied to Greater Risk of Nonadherence to Conventional Cancer Treatment


Study investigates complementary medicine use in patients with curable cancer types and its impact on survival and adherence to conventional therapy.

Individuals with curable cancers who received complementary therapy were more likely to refuse at least 1 component of their conventional cancer treatment, increasing their risk of death, according to a new study.

The study, published in JAMA Oncology, was led by researchers from Yale Cancer Center and the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research Cancer (COPPER) at Yale School of Medicine.

Previous research indicates that complementary therapies can be helpful in improving quality of life for patients with cancer; however, there is limited research evaluating the impact of these medicines on survival. The researchers investigated complementary medicine use and its impact on survival and treatment adherence among patients with cancer.

For the study, the researchers investigated 1290 patients with breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer in the National Cancer Database, which represents approximately 70% of newly diagnosed cancers nationwide. They compared 258 patients who used complementary medicine with 1032 who did not.

The researchers found that patients who received complementary medicines in addition to conventional cancer treatments had a greater risk of death. These patients were more likely to refuse other aspects of recommended care, such as chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and/or hormone therapy, despite having received some conventional cancer therapy. As a result, these patients had a 2-fold higher risk of death than those who did not use complementary medicine, the researchers noted.

“The fact that complementary medicine use is associated with higher refusal of proven cancer treatments as well as increased risk of death should give providers and patients pause,” lead study author Skyler Johnson, MD, chief resident in radiation oncology at Yale School of Medicine, said in a press release. “Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion about the role of complementary therapies. Although they may be used to support patients experiencing symptoms from cancer treatment, it looks as though they are either being marketed or understood to be effective cancer treatments.”

Overall, the researchers attributed refusal of conventional cancer therapies to be a primary factor for decreased survival in patients using complementary medicines. The findings suggest a need for health care professionals to take a proactive approach to discussing complementary therapies and adherence to conventional treatments with their patients.


Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, et al. Complementary medicine, refusal of conventional cancer therapy, and survival among patients with curable cancers. JAMA Oncology. 2018. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.2487

Complementary medicine for cancer can decrease survival [news release]. Yale’s website. Accessed July 23, 2018.

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