By Sarah Rausch, Ph.D.
(From PARTNERS Winter 2010, Newsletter of the Patient & Family Advisory Program at Moffitt Cancer Center)
According to surveys, up to 80% of cancer patients report using some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), such as vitamins, supplements, massage, acupuncture or meditation. What I often hear from patients is that they think these are all safe and effective, because they do not require a prescription from their medical doctor.
Although many CAM therapies have been scientifically examined and shown to be safe for cancer patients, many otherwise harmless therapies can interfere with cancer patient’s treatment, prescriptions, symptoms and side effects.
Cancer treatments used at a medical center are studied for safety and effectiveness through a strict scientific process that includes laboratory research and clinical trials with large numbers of patients. Some CAM treatments have undergone the same type of study, and have been shown to help patients feel better and recover faster. For instance, a panel of experts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that acupuncture is effective in managing chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting and in controlling pain from surgery. However, other therapies, such as the use of common supplements like St. John’s Wort and garlic, can interfere with certain cancer treatments.
Although many patients believe these therapies would not interfere with their cancer treatment, it is important for cancer patients who are using or considering CAM to discuss this decision with their health care provider and to inform any CAM provider of all health conditions. When adding any new cancer treatment, CAM treatment, prescription medication or herbal supplement, this information should be reviewed with your healthcare provider.
Below are some questions patients should ask their health care and CAM providers:
What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
What are the risks associated with this therapy?
What are the potential side effects?
Does this therapy interfere in any way with my prescribed medications or cancer treatment?
Will this therapy be covered by my insurance?
Is this therapy a part of a clinical trial?
As with any medicine or treatment, it is a good idea to gather information before initiating any CAM therapy. Information is available on some CAM therapies for cancer patients on the Web:
”Thinking about Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People with Cancer” (www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/thinking-about-CAM)
“Are you considering Using CAM?” (www.nccam.nih.gov/health/decisions)
“Selecting a CAM Practitioner” (www.nccam.nih.gov/health/practitioner)
“What’s in the Bottle? An introduction to Dietary Supplements” (www.nccam.nih.gov/health/bottle)