4 Key Differences Between Alternative & Conventional Cancer Treatments

Cancer patients have many tough decisions to make after diagnosis. One of the most complex choices they face is which type of treatment to pursue. Many mesothelioma patients opt to simply follow their doctors’ orders. But others explore complementary and alternative therapies.

Conventional cancer treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. These approaches are backed by extensive medical research.

Alternative cancer therapies are used in place of conventional treatments. Experts consider them unproven. Alternative approaches may allow cancer to spread.

Complementary cancer treatments are the same ones as alternative therapies. But complementary approaches are used alongside conventional treatment, not in place of it.

For all types of cancer, treatment choices can have life-altering effects. Knowing how the options differ may help patients feel good about their decisions. Key differences between conventional and alternative cancer treatments include:

  • How much scientific support they have
  • How predictable they are in combination with other treatments
  • How tightly regulated they are
  • Whether or not they are covered by insurance

Keep reading to learn more about these important differences.

1: Alternative Therapy Lacks Scientific Support

Medical researchers have studied both alternative and conventional cancer therapies. Thousands of publications support the efficacy of conventional treatments. But far fewer studies have even investigated alternative approaches. And many have indicated patients simply don’t benefit from alternative cancer treatments.

Conventional cancer treatment may also be known as Western medicine.

For example, chemotherapy is a conventional treatment for mesothelioma. Researchers have studied it for decades and published data covering thousands of cases. It has helped improve life expectancy for many mesothelioma patients.

On the other hand, Essiac tea is an alternative therapy that proponents claim can fight cancer. It has not been studied in large trials. No publicly available data suggests it can treat cancer. And some case reports suggest it may cause harm.

There are no guarantees with any cancer treatment. But replacing conventional treatments with alternative medicine may cause more harm than good.

2: Alternative Therapy May Have Unpredictable Effects on Standard Treatments

Doctors can’t predict with complete accuracy how any combination of treatments will affect a patient. But conventional medicines like chemo have been studied for more than a century. Researchers have tested them alongside many different drugs. This includes medications patients might take for other conditions, like diabetes.

So doctors know what range of effects are most likely to occur. They also have a better idea of how different treatments might interact with each other. This knowledge is important because it can help minimize negative side effects.

The same cannot be said of alternative therapies, because they have not been extensively studied. Doctors do not have a vast number of studies to draw from. They cannot know how untested alternative approaches will affect standard treatments. This may be why experts encourage patients to discuss alternative approaches with their doctors. They can assess the potential risks of specific alternative treatments based on individual patient factors.

3: Regulations Are Lax for Alternative Therapies

Conventional therapies like chemo and immunotherapy are heavily regulated. They go through years of clinical trials and reviews before gaining approval. Manufacturers have to demonstrate their treatments are safe and effective. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues monitoring long after they are approved.

Conversely, many alternative therapies are considered to be dietary supplements. This type of product can be sold without FDA approval or a prescription. Some labels may not even accurately represent the supplement’s true contents. As a result, herbal or dietary products that seem safe could still cause harm.

Experts say patients should talk about supplements with their oncologists. This allows doctors to discuss the potential risks and benefits ahead of time.

4: Insurance Covers Many Conventional Therapies

Insurance coverage can vary by location and plan type. But the Affordable Health Care Act requires newer policies to cover most cancer-related costs. This coverage is generally limited to conventional treatments. And many older policies cover at least some conventional cancer therapies.

Insurers usually do not cover alternative approaches with questionable benefits. Some plans might cover alternative therapies supported by science. But patients may need a prescription or referral and preauthorization to obtain coverage. So even if a therapy is covered, it may be a hassle to secure coverage.

What Does This Mean for Cancer Patients?

First, patients may want to keep in mind the difference between alternative and complementary approaches:

  • Alternative therapies are used in place of conventional treatments.
  • Complementary approaches are used in addition to conventional therapies.

And complementary therapies may help manage fatigue and other treatment side effects. So patients should not be dissuaded from exploring complementary therapies. Instead, they can prioritize discussing these options with their doctors. This conversation can help patients choose approaches with the potential to enhance conventional treatment plans.

Second, patients should keep the facts about alternative therapies in mind. These approaches are unproven and may cause harm. And data suggests patients who choose alternative rather than conventional treatments have a higher risk of death. Considering these facts, experts generally urge patients not to replace conventional treatment with alternative therapies.