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Survey: 4 in 10 Americans erroneously believe alternative therapies can cure cancer

These startling findings underscore the widespread lack of scientific literacy among Americans.

American Society of Clinical Oncology

Almost four in 10 Americans mistakenly believe that cancer can be cured using only “alternative” therapies, such as oxygen therapy, diet, herbs, and vitamin and mineral supplements, according to a new survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Younger adults were particularly likely to hold that view. In the survey, 47 percent of people aged 18 to 37 said they thought alternative therapies alone could cure cancer versus 21 percent of people over the age of 72.

These startling findings underscore the widespread lack of scientific literacy among Americans — and the dangers that come with such ignorance. For the evidence overwhelmingly shows that alternative therapies do not cure cancer. In fact, using them in place of standard treatments can shorten the lives of cancer patients.

A Yale University study published earlier this year found, for example, that cancer patients who chose alternative medicine for their sole treatment were 2.5 times more likely be dead five years later than patients who received standard cancer treatments, such as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

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The survival difference in that study was particularly pronounced among women with non-metastatic breast cancer. Those who used alternative rather than standard treatments were five times more likely to die within five years.

“There’s no question that evidence-based cancer therapy is necessary to effectively treat the disease,” said Dr. Richard Schilsky, ASCO’s chief medical officer, in a released statement. “The vast majority of alternative therapies either haven’t been rigorously studied or haven’t been found to benefit patients.”

Financial stress

ASCO’s survey was conducted by the Harris Poll, which questioned 4,887 U.S. adults — including 1,001 cancer patients or cancer survivors — last July and August. It is the second year in a row that ASCO has commissioned this particular survey.

In addition to the results regarding attitudes toward alternative therapies, the survey also found that while many Americans (58 percent) are concerned about getting cancer, an almost equal proportion (57 percent) are worried about the financial impact that a cancer diagnosis would have on their families.

That financial anxiety was even higher (69 percent) among the cancer patients and caregivers who were surveyed — and with good reason. Almost a third of the patients said they have had to pay for at least some of their cancer treatment out of their own pockets, including 17 percent who said they’ve dipped into their savings to cover the costs.

In addition, one in five of the cancer patients (20 percent) said they had taken matters into their own hands to keep their cancer treatment costs down, such as by delaying scans (7 percent), skipping or delaying medical appointments (7 percent) and cutting prescribed pills in half (6 percent).

American Society of Clinical Oncology
Most of the patients (88 percent) said they wanted Congress to pass a law allowing Medicare to enter into direct negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to keep drug prices down. An almost equal number of the surveyed patients (86 percent) said they would also like to see the federal government regulate the price of cancer drugs to help lower costs, and many (77 percent) said U.S. residents should be permitted to buy cancer drugs from pharmacies in other countries.

Much of the financial burden related to cancer care appears to fall on the shoulders of family caregivers. Among the caregivers surveyed, 61 percent said they have taken action to help pay for the care of their loved one, including dipping into savings (35 percent), working extra hours (23 percent), making an early withdrawal from a retirement account or college fund (14 percent), taking out a second mortgage or other loan (13 percent) and selling family heirlooms (9 percent).

“It’s clear that high treatment costs are taking a serious toll not only on patients, but also on the people who care for them,” said Schilsky. “If a family member has been diagnosed with cancer, the sole focus should be helping them get well. Instead, Americans are worrying about affording treatment, and in many cases, they’re making serious personal sacrifices to help pay for their loved ones’ care.”

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Other findings

Here are some other key findings from the survey:

  • More than two-thirds of the survey’s respondents who had witnessed a loved one go through cancer said that suffering or experiencing pain is their greatest concern about getting the disease themselves.
  • Three in four of the respondents (73 percent) said that any rules or regulations aimed at making opioids harder to obtain should not be applied to cancer patients.Most (69 percent) believed the benefits of using prescription opioids to manage cancer pain outweigh any risks of addiction.
  • A large proportion of the respondents (83 percent) — including 62 percent of cancer patients — said they supported the use of medical marijuana to alleviate nausea, pain and other symptoms related to cancer. But more than half of the patients in the survey (58 percent) expressed a desire for more information about medical marijuana’s benefits.
  • Most of the cancer patients (89 percent) said they believed they were receiving the best possible care for their disease, but about one in four (26 percent) said there weren’t enough doctors specializing in cancer care near where they lived. The proportion of cancer patients who expressed that concern was much higher among those living in rural areas (40 percent) than among those living in urban and suburban areas (22 percent). Indeed, patients living in rural areas typically spend 50 minutes traveling one way to see their cancer doctor, according to the survey. That compares to about 30 minutes for patients living in non-rural areas.

FMI:  You can read ASCO’s full report on the survey at the organization’s website.