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

The use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is common among breast cancer patients, but less is known about whether SCAM influences breast cancer survival. The primary aim of this recent study from Tunesia was to determine the impact of self-use of herbs on the overall survival of women with breast cancer.

The researchers conducted a prospective study including 110 patients with breast cancer. All patients were questioned about their usage of herbal remedies. The demographic data and the overall survival of the patients were then analyzed.

The average age was 51 years (30-80 years old). In total, 37 had metastatic disease (33.6%), and 48 patients had taken plant-based treatments (43.6%). Of those women, 19 patients consumed Graviola (39.6%) and 29 Alenda (60.4%). Overall survival rates at 3 years and at 5 years were 96.2% and 82.4% in the absence of herbal medicine usage versus 78.5% and 78.5% in the presence of herbal medicine use (p = 0.015).

The authors concluded that self-medication with Graviola or Alenda may be associated with an increase of death risk in patients with breast cancer. Further studies are needed to confirm these results.

This is only a small and not very rigorous case-control study. In itself, it would be far from conclusive. What renders it relevant, however, is the fact that its findings do by no means stand alone. We have seen several times on this blog that SCAM use can shorten the life of cancer patients, e.g.:

So, perhaps it is true? Perhaps using SCAM is not such a good idea, if you are suffering from cancer!

The mechanisms of such detrimental effects are not difficult to imagine. They might include direct effects on the cancer, interactions with prescribed drugs, delay of cancer diagnosis, or less strict adherence to the anti-cancer treatments.

4 Responses to Herbal treatments might shorten breast cancer survival

  • This was a prospective study so the results are somewhat more robust that if it had been retrospective, but the subjects were free to choose whether or not they used herbal medicines so there are any number of unknown confounding factors. However, as you say, many other studies have shown similar and rather worrying results.

    To my mind the most likely explanation is that this is a true, not a statistical effect, and that those using herbal medicines are using conventional medicine less effectively for all the reasons you suggest. There is also the possibility that the herbs may be actively harmful, of course.

  • I would be interested to see if the study included why these women chose to include herbal treatments in the anti-cancer regimen. What gap or need did these herbal treatments fill that the other treatments or providers lacked? Analyzing this issue may lead to improvements that could make fewer patients turn to less than effective herbal treatments. Do you know of any studies that have been done on this question? I’d be interested in reading them.

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