MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Breast cancer and its treatments lead to a decrease in patients’ quality of life (QOL). This systematic review aimed to assess the effectiveness of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) on the QOL of women with breast cancer.

A total of 28 clinical trials were included in the systematic review, 18 of which were randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Participants included women with breast cancer who were undergoing the first three phases of breast cancer or post-cancer rehabilitation. One study tested a dietary supplement, and the other 27 tested a variety of mind-body techniques (the authors counted the following modalities in this category: acupuncture, hyperthermia, movement therapy (qigong), laser therapy, orthomolecular therapy, osteopathy, phototherapy, healing touch, homeopathy, lymphatic drainage, magnet field therapy, manual therapy, neural therapy, Shiatsu). Twenty-seven studies showed improved QOL.

The authors concluded that the findings may indicate the potential benefits of SCAMs, especially mind-body techniques on QOL in breast cancer patients. Further RCTs or long-term follow-up studies are recommended. Moreover, the use of similar QOL assessment tools allows for more meta-analysis and generalizability of results, especially for the development of clinical guidelines.

This is a somewhat odd paper:

  • it is poorly written,
  • it lumps together SCAMs that do not belong in the same category,
  • it only considered studies published in English,
  • it included studies regardless of study design, even those without any control groups.

Regardless of these consideration, it stands to reason that patients’ QoL can be improved by SCAM. Only a fool would deny that a bit of extra care, kindness, attention and time is good for patients. The relevant questions, however, are quite different:

  1. Is this effect due to the extra attention and care or is it due to specific effects of SCAM?
  2. Which SCAM is best at achieving an improvement of QoL?
  3. Are the truly effective SCAMs better than conventional interventions aimed at improving QoL?

These are by no means academic questions but issues that need to be addressed to improve cancer care, and tackling them is in the best interest of suffering patients. Sadly, none of them can be answered by conducting poor quality systematic reviews of the evidence. Even more sadly, few of the proponents of integrated medicine want to face the music and answer these questions. They seem to prefer to stand in the way of progress, to ignore medical ethics, to blindly and naively integrate any old nonsense from the realm of SCAM (anything from homeopathy to Reiki) into routine care without probing further and without wanting to know the facts.

It is almost as though they are afraid of the truth.

4 Responses to SCAM-Use and Quality of Life in Patients with Breast Cancer

  • This blog said:
    “…Even more sadly, few of the proponents of integrated medicine want to face the music and answer these questions…”

    Who would voluntarily incur Inquisition?

    If someone believed “SCAM” worked for them, why would they then invite ridicule and aggression? Better to keep quiet and “in the family” only.

    • Q: who would voluntarily incur definitive research?
      A: any healthcare professional who is ethical and wants progress

    • Many of my friends believe in alternative medicine. I hear the way they rage against “allopathic” medicine and the entire medical system. I hear their fury, and it’s not based on any specific case of malpractice, but rather aimed at the whole system and all doctors, all of whom are seen as entirely or corrupted, and a deadly parasitic plague on humanity.

      Yet the slightest criticism of alternative medicine evokes exactly the same kind of response as yours here.

      Why the double standard?

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