Alternative therapies for cancer: Do they do more harm than good?

Cancer
New research finds that one-third of people living with cancer use complementary and alternative therapies. Medical professionals raise concerns about the safety of these practices, suggesting that they may interfere with conventional cancer treatment.

woman doing yoga
New research suggests that yoga may be one of the few nonconventional therapies that may help people living with cancer.

In 2018, the National Cancer Institute estimated that 1,735,350 people in the United States would receive a diagnosis of cancer by the end of that year and that 609,640 people would die from the condition.

Coping with the distressing news of a cancer diagnosis can be challenging.

As Dany Bell, a specialist advisor on cancer treatment and recovery at Macmillan Cancer Support in the United Kingdom, put it, “Being diagnosed with cancer can be a big shock, even if you already suspected you might have it.”

Once they receive a diagnosis, many people turn to complementary and alternative therapies in search of a cure.

But new research cautions that such an approach may be misguided. Dr. Nina Sanford, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, led an analysis of data from a comprehensive national survey to find out exactly how many people living with cancer also use complementary and alternative medicines.

Dr. Sanford — an assistant professor of radiation oncology — and colleagues published their findings in the journal JAMA Oncology.

One-third of patients use alternative medicines

Some have expressed concern that people who use complementary therapies — such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, herbal medication, and supplements — do not inform their physicians.

Dr. Sanford and colleagues refer to these concerns in their paper, as well as a study suggesting that a small subgroup of people who used complementary medicines had a poorer outlook than those who did not.

In light of these worries, Dr. Sanford and the team analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The researchers carried out a cross-sectional study in an attempt to estimate the proportion of people with cancer who use complementary therapies.

Dr. Sanford’s analysis revealed that one-third of people with a cancer diagnosis take complementary and alternative medicines. Herbal supplements were the most popular alternative therapy. Chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation were a close second.

Furthermore, Dr. Sanford’s analysis revealed that 29 percent of those who use complementary treatments do not tell their physicians about it. Among the reasons that participants gave were that the doctor did not ask or that they thought their physician did not need to know.

“Younger patients are more likely to use complementary and alternative medicines and women were more likely to, but I would have thought more people would tell their doctors,” comments Dr. Sanford.

Why herbal supplements may be harmful

“You don’t know what’s in them,” the lead investigator continues, referring to herbal supplements. “Some of these supplements are kind of a mishmash of different things.”

Unless we know what’s in [the herbal supplements], I would recommend patients avoid using them during radiation because [certain supplements] could interfere with treatment.”

Dr. Nina Sanford

“With radiation specifically, there is concern that very high levels of antioxidants could make radiation less effective,” she adds.

Dr. David Gerber, a lung cancer specialist and professor of internal medicine and population and data sciences at the university — who was not involved in the study — also comments on the clinical relevance of the findings.

“[Supplements] may interact with the medicines we’re giving them, and through that interaction [they] could alter the level of the medicine in the patient,” he says, adding, “If the levels get too high, then toxicities increase, and if the levels get too low, the efficacy would drop.”

Yoga, meditation may help

Although physicians are concerned about the effects of supplements, they suggest that yoga and meditation may be beneficial for coping with a cancer diagnosis.

“We strongly advise patients to stay active and engage in exercise during treatment,” Dr. Sanford says.

A common side effect of radiation is fatigue. I let the patients know that the patients who feel the most fatigue are the ones who are the most sedentary and that those who are doing exercise are the ones who frequently have the most energy.”

Dr. Nina Sanford

People living with cancer have also recently shared some of their experiences with yoga. One perspective comes from Belindy Sarembock, who is 53 years old, lives in Dallas, and has received a breast cancer diagnosis. She speaks of the tremendous benefits that this type of exercise has for her.

“I was one who would have laughed at yoga before breast cancer, but now it just helps me so much,” she says. “It’s just so relaxing, I just feel so good after I leave. It’s just so peaceful. For your body, I can’t think of anything better than that.”

Sarembock adds that yoga helped relieve chemo-induced neuropathy — nerve damage — almost immediately.

I couldn’t get onto my toes. After the second time of going to yoga, I was able to go onto my toes […] I wish I would have known about the yoga earlier. It was just such a benefit and helped me so much. I highly recommend it to anyone.”

Belindy Sarembock

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