Buck­ing the doc­tor can kill you

Study finds some can­cer pa­tients who use al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies in­crease risk of death

Regina Leader-Post - - YOU - WANDA MOR­RIS

We all have things we ex­cel at. Ac­cord­ing to one of my col­leagues, my su­per-power is mak­ing but­ter tarts. I never put much stock in this ac­com­plish­ment un­til re­cently when I made an amazing dis­cov­ery: But­ter tarts make me lose weight!

I’ve re­cently be­gun track­ing my food, ex­er­cise and weight to help me lose a few. Imag­ine my sur­prise when I re­al­ized that eat­ing a but­ter tart on an evening of­ten led to weight loss the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

I’ve found no sci­ence to ex­plain why but­ter tarts help weight loss, but some­thing in the com­bi­na­tion of but­ter, brown sugar and raisins has a re­mark­able ef­fect. While two wrongs don’t make a right, maybe three wrongs do!

OK, I don’t (re­ally) be­lieve but­ter tarts have helped me lose weight, but it’s in­ter­est­ing how co­in­ci­dence can shape our think­ing. Nowhere is this more preva­lent than in al­ter­na­tive medicine.

Al­ter­na­tive medicine con­sists of treat­ments not ac­cepted by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity or med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers, of­ten be­cause of a lack of re­search.

Con­ven­tional medicine has lim­its; the sci­ence con­tin­u­ally evolves. We were once told that mar­garine was bet­ter than but­ter, X-ray­ing our feet at the shoe store was a great idea and that smok­ing was good for us? The rec­om­men­da­tions of one decade may fal­ter under the scru­tiny of an­other.

So why not chal­lenge the rec­om­men­da­tions of con­ven­tional medicine?

The short an­swer is that it can kill us. A 2017 study of U.S. can­cer pa­tients who de­clined tra­di­tional can­cer treat­ment (chemo­ther­apy, ra­di­a­tion or hor­mone ther­apy) and in­stead used al­ter­na­tive medicines (un­proven treat­ments) found that pa­tients opt­ing solely for al­ter­na­tive medicines were more likely to die.

The ef­fect was most sig­nif­i­cant for breast can­cer pa­tients; women who used al­ter­na­tive medicine as their ini­tial treat­ment with­out us­ing con­ven­tional can­cer ther­a­pies in­creased their risk of death more than five-fold.

But still, that’s just one study. What if some al­ter­na­tive medicines re­ally can help us, if only we’d give them a try?

One phar­ma­cist in Van­cou­ver has de­vel­oped a way to let pa­tients ex­plore al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies. When pa­tients present al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies to

Dr. Alan Low, a Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia clin­i­cal as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sciences and founder of BioPro Bi­o­log­ics Phar­macy, he of­fers to part­ner with them to see if they ac­tu­ally help.

If the pa­tient agrees, Low pre­pares two ver­sions of the treat­ment: the ac­tual prod­uct and a placebo. The pa­tient isn’t told which is which. Guided by Low, the pa­tient keeps a di­ary to mon­i­tor spe­cific as­pects of their health dur­ing treat­ment, which pro­vides in­sight into the ef­fects of the prod­uct. Af­ter a few weeks, the pa­tient is switched to the other ver­sion and con­tin­ues to keep a di­ary to mon­i­tor their health.

Af­ter the study, Low re­views the di­ary and tells the pa­tient which treat­ment was the ac­tual prod­uct and which was the placebo.

Some­times the al­ter­na­tive prod­ucts pro­vided a tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit with few or no side­ef­fects. Other times, no dif­fer­ences were noted be­tween the two ver­sions.

In some cases, the pa­tient seemed to do bet­ter on the placebo. In this case, the al­ter­na­tive prod­uct was ac­tu­ally caus­ing harm­ful side-ef­fects.

When the pa­tients stopped tak­ing it, they felt bet­ter and at­trib­uted the im­prove­ment to the placebo, not re­al­iz­ing it was due to stop­ping the al­ter­na­tive treat­ment.

Con­ven­tional medicine has evolved as a re­sult of in­ten­sive study and peer-re­viewed re­search.

It is pos­si­ble that al­ter­na­tive medicines may aug­ment con­ven­tional treat­ments, but if we are go­ing to con­sider us­ing prod­ucts that have not passed the same level of scru­tiny, we should ad­here to the fa­mous doc­tors’ maxim: First do no harm.

It’s up to us to ask crit­i­cal ques­tions and do our re­search to stay as healthy as pos­si­ble.

If this col­umn has left you crav­ing but­ter tarts, I have good news. My recipe is in­cluded in a cook­book com­piled by our Ot­tawa CARP chap­ter. Send them an email at Ot­tawa@carp.ca and they will send you a link to pur­chase it.

Grey Mat­ters is a weekly col­umn by Wanda Mor­ris, the VP of Ad­vo­cacy for CARP, a 300,000-mem­ber na­tional, non-par­ti­san, non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity and im­proved health care for Cana­di­ans as we age. Past col­umns by Wanda and other key CARP con­trib­u­tors can be found at carp.ca/ blogs. For ques­tions email askwanda@carp.ca.

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