• Our one proviso is that you inform your doctor in case there are any interactions with the conventional treatment you are having.” (iStockphoto/Getty Images)
Thousands of Australians may be dying from cancer each year because they are replacing conventional treatments like chemotherapy, radiation and surgery with alternative treatments in the hope they will be cured, the Royal Institution of Australia believes.
By
Yasmin Noone

28 Oct 2016 - 10:05 AM  UPDATED 28 Oct 2016 - 1:08 PM

The Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), which also runs the Australian Science Channel, released an online video yesterday claiming that thousands of Australians are rejecting mainstream cancer treatments in preference of alternative cancer treatments that lack evidence.

Director of RiAus, Dr Paul Willis tells SBS that the cancer researchers and clinicians involved in making the video observe that an average of four per cent of patients diagnosed with cancer 'drop-off' the books and don't receive treatment.

It is RiAus's belief, he says, that patients who do not return for treatment, post-diagnosis, are seeking out alternative cures.

“We are able to say that in Australia, the drop-off rate for conventional treatment is between three-to-five per cent, averaging at four per cent of people who are diagnosed with cancer,” Dr Willis tells SBS.

“That figure represents the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer but do not follow through with conventional treatment like chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or a combination of all three when they opt for alternative medicine. 

“As far as we know, there is no evidence to say that any non-conventional treatment for cancer will cure you or even alleviate your cancer. You may as well do nothing; in which case you greatly increase your risk of suffering or dying early from cancer.”

“When you calculate four per cent of 130,466 – the estimated number of new cancer diagnoses in 2016, there are more than 6,000 people who are not getting the appropriate treatment of their cancers.”

Dr Willis believes this figure is a conservative estimate of the number of cancer patients who reject mainstream medical treatment for their cancers and potentially die as a result.

However, he admits, medical professionals can only assume that these patients are opting for alternative therapies because records are not kept for patients who ‘drop-out’ of the system or fail to follow through with treatment.

“There’s probably a range of different things going on here. I’d imagine some people are opting for no treatment at all but most, if not all are pursuing alternative therapies.

“As far as we know, there is no evidence to say that any non-conventional treatment for cancer will cure you or even alleviate your cancer. You may as well do nothing; in which case you greatly increase your risk of suffering or dying early from cancer.”

“There’s probably a range of different things going on here. I’d imagine some people are opting for no treatment at all but most, if not all are pursuing alternative therapies."

Australian Integrative Medicine Association president, Penny Caldicott, agrees that this trend may be happening.

But, she states, in some cases, patients may reject conventional treatment if their chance of survival is not great – not because they are opting for alternative treatments – but because they choose to die and spend whatever time they have left outside of a hospital.

“It may also be the case that patient comes totally closed to conventional treatment and so we have to encourage them to see a few oncologists and get the information they need to make an informed decision,” says Caldicott.

She adds that it is the doctor and therapist’s responsibility to inform patients of their chances of conventional treatment success and help them to make an informed decision about whether to pursue treatment.

“It is an obligation of the doctor to stay with the patient and support them, no matter what their decision to do is and to offer them information about the best evidence-based treatment available,” Caldicott says.  

“Doctors should continue to try to see their patient regardless of what their choice is so that they can get help them get through the shock and trauma of the diagnosis and after that, guide them through their cancer experience.”

Integrative and alternative medicine: What’s the difference?
Integrative medicine is a relatively new field of medicine, combining the service you are used to getting from your GP with the expertise and knowledge often found in complementary therapies. But how valid can a medical practice based on herbs and alternative treatments really be?

Complementary therapies versus alternative treatments

Although the terms alternative treatments and complementary therapies are often inaccurately used interchangeably, there is a massive distinction between the two that cancer patients and families must be aware of.

“Complementary therapies are used along-side conventional medicine [to ease symptoms, side-effects of treatment and pain] while alternative is used instead of conventional treatments,” says Dr Willis.

Caldicott confirms that no integrative medical practitioner or responsible complementary therapist would ever “recommend that anyone offer an alternative therapy as a cure for cancer, as it is not evidence-based”.

“What we offer in integrative medicine and what I believe other complementary therapists would offer is support along the patient’s cancer journey, as they are being treated with conventional medicine.

“So we never use the word ‘alternative’ to describe what we do. It’s complementary to the mainstream medical system. From our perspective, we would always encourage patients to follow conventional treatment and use supportive, complementary treatment along-side that that is evidence-based.”

“Complementary therapies are used along-side conventional medicine [to ease symptoms, side-effects of treatment and pain] while alternative is used instead of conventional treatments."

Dr Willis stresses that complementary treatments, like meditation and naturopathy – in most cases when the patient is treated by a reputable practitioner – “are not the problem” if practitioners work with medical professionals in a multidisciplinary way to treat both the cancer and the symptoms of the disease or treatment side-effects.

“The journey through cancer is never a pleasant one, even if you have one of the lighter cancer journeys. There are still ordeals to go through for treatment and sometimes, that journey has unpleasant side-effects.

“If you are in a situation of complete pain and find comfort from using a complementary therapy, then by all means do it.

“Our one proviso is that you inform your doctor in case there are any interactions with the conventional treatment you are having.”

On the other hand, he says, alternative treatments that promise to replace medical treatment and cure cancer in exchange for cancer cures – a new herb, a non-evidence based treatment regime as part of a health retreat escape or a radical juicing diet – should be rejected as false and misleading.

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet or every cancer treatment claim. If someone claims they can cure cancer, ask for the data to explain how they intend to do it and the results. Ask about the treatment’s success and failure rates.

“Our one proviso is that you inform your doctor in case there are any interactions with the conventional treatment you are having.”

“But if they can’t provide that sort of information, then approach that treatment with extreme caution.”

Caldicott agrees but also adds that regardless of whether you are using a conventional treatment without complmentary medicine, or an alternative treatment, “no one can ever promise anyone a ‘cure’ to cancer”.

“All cancers are so different and everyone’s experience of cancer is unique.

“So all we can ever do is say: ‘here is the evidence for that treatment so that people can make an informed decision about what they want to do’.”

When East meets West to relieve the side-effects of cancer treatment
The benefits of Eastern medicine are being merged into the Western realm of cancer care. In Sydney, one integrated medicine specialist is investigating how acupuncture can be used to help relieve the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
Can we use a simple blood test to detect cancer?
Australian and French scientists are working together to make cancer detectable via a blood test.
Childhood cancer survivors suffering long-term health issues
New data has revealed 81 per cent of childhood cancer survivors suffer health consequences well into their adult years.
Childhood cancer deaths have fallen in Australia, but some types remain more of a challenge
Nearly 40 per cent fewer Australian children are dying from childhood cancers today compared to 15 years ago, new statistics show. But there's been little or no change to survival rates for children's brain, kidney and liver cancers.