Should Ethics Apply to Alternative Cancer Treatments?

Many years ago, I knew a young woman who developed a serious type of cancer (though of course any kind of cancer is serious). She opted for alternative cancer treatments because she did not want to listen to her physicians. She did not like what they told her, and frankly she was convinced by friends that “Western Medicine was evil.” Sadly, she passed away after spending tens of thousands of dollars of her own money on cures that didn’t remotely work.  The question about alternative cancer treatments and choice raises serious ethical questions.

In a recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Skyler Johnson, who was the lead physician of the report said that patients who refuse or delay conventional treatments in favor of alternative cancer treatments are more than doubling their chances that they will succumb to the disease.

Dr. Johnson said. “Your chance of cure decreases as the cancer grows and spreads.” He gave the example of a patient who might have stage I breast cancer. It has almost a 100% chance of survival after five years. If left untreated, and if it becomes stage IV breast cancer, where it spreads throughout the body, the five-year survival rate is as low 20%.

Some say: Stop the Posturing with Alternative Cancer Treatments

The idea of alternative cancer treatments is very appealing – from afar. I call it the arrogance of wellness. In the past, my posts have talked about pseudo physicians and “medical providers” with absolutely no credentials. They wind up hurting more than helping and often – they end lives prematurely.  Yet, there are those who will swear by them condeming western medicine as nothing more than a money driven machine.  Life expectancy has risen in the age of western medicine.  There must be something to be said for that.

Each time, the case for alternative cancer treatments is made in an angry vacuum. The anger is directed toward the medical industry, such as providers of chemotherapy like 21st Century Oncology, Johnson and Johnson, Medtronic and Pfizer.

Instead of anger, alternative “healers” should instead wow us with solid documentation, long-term results and an examination of what they are doing under the spotlight of science. They won’t do that.  Dr. Johnson stated: “We [should] have an informed discussion based on the evidence of what the risk might be if patients chose to move forward with alternative therapies.”

Here is where the arrogance I spoke of comes in to play. When truth is at hand, most “alternative therapists” who are facing cancer will run to conventional medicine.

The study

The study I mentioned above looked at 840 patients with cancers such as breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer. They compared that data to 280 patients who had chosen alternative medicine. In short, patients who opted for “feel good” therapy average a 2½-times greater risk of dying during the 5½-year follow-up period. Other studies reveal the same types of trends.

States Dr. Johnson:

“Anecdotally, there’s this belief that alternative therapies are as effective and nontoxic, so in their minds, why not do something just as good but have no side effects associated with that?”

The problem that those who boast of the curative benefits of oils, teas, seeds won’t often convey is that they will have conventional therapy then “supplement” it with miracle cures and/or surgery. It is disingenuous to say the least.

Interestingly, the study found that many patients who opt for alternative cancer treatments are affluent, well-educated and tend to live on the east or west coasts. This is often the same demographic that is against vaccinating their children, so long as “you” vaccinate yours.

Alternative Cancer Treatments: Ethical Component

My experience with those who push the agenda of alternative cancer treatments is that while they have plenty of anger and disdain for the medical profession, they lack an ethical approach to the problem.

Despite the arguments against conventional medicine, what I never hear are ethical approaches. Let me give an example or two of many:

“What is your ethical rationale for withholding effective therapies in favor of unproven approaches?”

“If your child was diagnosed with cancer, would you withhold a proven treatment in favor of an alternative approach?”

I can hear the screaming matches unfold right now. What I cannot hear is an argument for only alternative therapies that contains a modicum of rational thought.



Posted by Chuck Gallagher in Medical Ethics and tagged , , , , , , .

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