Although many use vitamins and supplements to help improve or maintain their health, some people also turn to these and other alternative treatments for disease. A new study has found that when women are using dietary supplements, they are less likely to get chemotherapy for their breast cancer.
The study comes from Heather Greenlee, N.D. and other researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. They published their results in the journal JAMA Oncology.
The study involved 598 women under the age of 70 who were diagnosed with early-stage, nonmetastatic invasive breast cancer and received breast surgery. Of these women, 306 were informed they should get chemotherapy, based on standard guidelines. The other 272 women received a discretionary recommendation for chemotherapy from their doctors. Researchers asked women if they were using any alternative therapies at the start of the study, such as vitamins and minerals, herbs and botanicals, other natural products, personal mind-body techniques, or mind-body techniques led by a practitioner. The researchers created an index analyzing which and how many of these complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments the study participants used.
When someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, they have a choice about their treatment. Even if doctors recommend that chemotherapy is their best option, they may still choose to turn to alternative therapies either instead of or in addition to their chemotherapy. Some women may be given medical options other than chemotherapy, depending on their type and stage of cancer. Someone’s decision to undergo chemotherapy or not may be based on psychological factors, their belief system, their demographics, or factors related to the clinic or provider.
The researchers found that twelve months after the start of the study, 272 or about 89 percent of the women whose doctor indicated that they should get chemotherapy did go through with their chemotherapy treatments. However, the same was not true of the women with a discretionary recommendation for chemotherapy. Only 135 of these women, about 36 percent, choose to start chemotherapy treatments.
At the beginning of the study, 598 women, about 87 percent, had said they were using some sort of alternative medicine, most commonly dietary supplements or mind-body practices. Two was the most common number of alternative treatments these women were using, but about 38 percent of the women said they used three or more types of alternative medicine treatments at the same time.
The data showed that when women used mind-body practices and were told they should get chemotherapy, it did not seem to affect their likelihood of choosing to go ahead with chemotherapy. When women used more alternative therapies and chemotherapy was a discretionary recommendation, they were no more likely to choose or not choose chemotherapy. However, when the women used dietary supplements and were told they should get chemotherapy, they were less likely than their peers to initiate chemotherapy treatments.
The study authors were not sure why the women using dietary supplements were less likely to go ahead with their recommended chemotherapy treatments. There is no indication whether the choice of alternative therapies over medically-recommended treatment had something to do with these women’s long-term decision-making patterns.
The researchers say the study results could be beneficial to oncologists. By asking patients about their use of complementary alternative therapies, doctors may get a better idea of which patients will choose chemotherapy and which will avoid their treatments. The doctors can then present these patients with facts about the benefits of chemotherapy for their health.
Statistics show that having chemotherapy after breast cancer surgery can improve a woman’s chance of survival, across different ages and different breast cancer types. The improvement in survival odds also seems to be greatest for the women who had the worst prognosis.
Adjuvant chemotherapy is used after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, such as in the breast. The chemotherapy treatments can help kill cancer cells that surgeons missed when removing the tumor. However, because chemotherapy works by killing cancer cells, it can also kill healthy cells, leading to side effects like nausea, fatigue, hair loss, and mouth sores. The chance of experiencing these side effects may have an effect on a woman’s choice to receive or avoid chemotherapy.