Complementary Therapies in Cancer Treatment

Complementary Therapies in Cancer Treatment

According to the NCCAM [1], or the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the NIH, 62% of the whole population of America makes use of alternative and complementary medication, also known as CAM2. CAM is a specific group of health care and medical systems, procedures, practices and tools that have not been officially approved as part of conventional medical practices. Among all the patients suffering from cancer in America, almost 70% make use of complementary or alternative medication. According to some sources, the figure may even be higher than this. It is necessary to note, however, that there is a difference between complementary and alternative medications.

Doctor examining patient, early detection is important.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard medical care.
•Standard medical care is medicine that is practiced by health professionals who hold an M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degree. It is also practiced by other health professionals, such as physical therapists, physician assistants, psychologists, and registered nurses. Standard medicine may also be called biomedicine or allopathic, Western, mainstream, orthodox, or regular medicine. Some standard medical care practitioners are also practitioners of CAM.
•Complementary medicine is treatments that are used along with standard medical treatments but are not considered to be standard treatments. One example is using acupuncture to help lessen some side effects of cancer treatment.
•Alternative medicine is treatments that are used instead of standard medical treatments. One example is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of anticancer drugs that are prescribed by an oncologist.
•Integrative medicine is a total approach to medical care that combines standard medicine with the CAM practices that have shown to be safe and effective. They treat the patient’s mind, body, and spirit.

Alternative therapies:

Alternative therapies are promoted as substitutes or replacements for the standard treatments used for curing cancer, mostly with a claim of having a potential cure. The claims of the effectiveness or positive results of these alternative therapies have not been recorded by major scientific studies, neither have they been published or printed in peer reviewed documents and journals.

Complementary treatments

Unlike alternative treatments, complementary treatments are used along with standard or conventional treatments used for curing cancer. This combination aims at improving the overall quality of life of the patient and contributing towards his or her well-being. Companies and individuals that practice complementary medication and therapies never claim to provide cures for cancer, but focus on improving the patients’ quality of life, and relief from some of the symptoms that patients have to cope with. These symptoms may be physical and even emotional and are always linked to cancer and the treatments that are used to cure it. According to a number of qualitative scientific studies, complementary therapies and medications have shown some promising results and have the potential to improve some symptoms associated with cancer such as stress and nausea.

Numerous standard medicine centers use a term called “integrative medicine” for describing a complete approach to care which includes the patient’s body, mind and  spirit. Integrative medicine is the combination of conventional medicine as well as complementary and alternative medicine which have provided promising results in terms of effectiveness and safety.

Are CAM approaches safe?

Some CAM therapies have undergone careful evaluation and have found to be safe and effective. However there are others that have been found to be ineffective or possibly harmful. Less is known about many CAM therapies, and research has been slower for a number of reasons:
•Time and funding issues
•Problems finding institutions and cancer researchers to work with on the studies
•Regulatory issues

CAM therapies need to be evaluated with the same long and careful research process used to evaluate standard treatments. Standard cancer treatments have generally been studied for safety and effectiveness through an intense scientific process that includes clinical trials with large numbers of patients.

Natural Does Not Mean Safe

CAM therapies include a wide variety of botanicals and nutritional products, such as dietary supplements, herbal supplements, and vitamins. Many of these “natural” products are considered to be safe because they are present in, or produced by, nature. However, that is not true in all cases. In addition, some may affect how well other medicines work in your body. For example, the herb St. John’s wort, which some people use for depression, may cause certain anticancer drugs not to work as well as they should.

Herbal supplements may be harmful when taken by themselves, with other substances, or in large doses. For example, some studies have shown that kava kava, an herb that has been used to help with stress and anxiety, may cause liver damage.

Vitamins can also have unwanted effects in your body. For example, some studies show that high doses of vitamins, even vitamin C, may affect how chemotherapy and radiation work. Too much of any vitamin is not safe, even in a healthy person.

Tell your doctor if you’re taking any dietary supplements, no matter how safe you think they are. This is very important. Even though there may be ads or claims that something has been used for years, they do not prove that it’s safe or effective.

Supplements do not have to be approved by the federal government before being sold to the public. Also, a prescription is not needed to buy them. Therefore, it’s up to consumers to decide what is best for them.

NCI and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) are currently sponsoring or cosponsoring various clinical trials that test CAM treatments and therapies in people. Some study the effects of complementary approaches used in addition to conventional treatments, and some compare alternative therapies with conventional treatments.

Categories of CAM therapies:

Mind Body medicines: The mind-body treatments were introduced on the basis of the belief that the mind has the potential to communicate with, and affect the entire body. This form of treatment includes practices such as meditation, guided imagery, psychotherapy, prayer and other creative therapies for instance, dance, art and music.

Biological or natural therapies: these make use of all the substances that are found occurring naturally, for examples herbs, vitamins, special diets and natural foods. Some of the classic examples of the biological based treatment therapies are shark cartilage, Essiac tea and anti-neoplastons. One must understand that even though distributors may label majority of these products as entirely natural, there are always chances of severe side effects and reactions with other supplements and drugs. These therapies must not be considered as altogether harmless. Cautions should be taken with all sorts of therapies.

Manipulative and body-based methods: These involve the movement or manipulation of one or multiple parts of the body. Some of the most common practices that are included as part of manipulative and body based methods are reflexology, osteopathic or chiropractic manipulation and specialized massages.

Energy therapies: Energy therapies make use of different energy fields which surround the body, and have the potential to penetrate it to heal it. Some of the most popular examples of energy therapies include reiki, tai chi, therapeutic touch and Qigong. These therapies are also very popular among the general population to combat stress.

Whole medical systems: Whole medical systems are specialized systems and beliefs of healing which have been derived from and evolved in different cultures and different places across the globe. Some of the common examples of known whole medicine systems being used today are acupuncture, Chinese medicine administration and practices, and homeopathy. Acupuncture should only be performed by licensed acupuncturists who, ideally,  have a 4 year degree in the therapy.

A majority of all the complementary and alternative medications being used today, including the natural or biological based treatments, have not been officially tested as part of the standard process in clinical trials. This means that these therapies and treatments have not been tested or evaluated the same way as standard conventional approaches are. It is for this reason that most medical professionals classify these therapies and treatment methods as unproven.

They have been described as unproven because the safety and effectiveness of these therapies have not been proven by standard scientific methodological procedures. According to various studies, it has also been concluded that a majority of the patients who opt for CAM treatments do not disclose this fact to their physicians. It is essential to know that keeping this information hidden may prove to be terribly harmful for the health of the patient, and the status of the cancer treatment and progress.

Complementary therapies can be combined with conventional treatments as long as there are no drug interactions taking place and the treatment is as non-invasive as possible. Always consult your doctor before going for any type of complementary treatment.

Additional Resources:

American Cancer Society. 2002. American Cancer Society’s Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods Handbook. Atlanta: American Cancer Society
This is a quick-and-easy guide about complementary and alternative therapies most commonly used by cancer patients. It contains over 200 entries on specific herbs, vitamins, minerals, mind/body, and biological therapies. Each entry describes the method and what effects may occur.

American Cancer Society. 2002. American Cancer Society Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods. Atlanta: American Cancer Society

This reference tool helps patients evaluate methods of CAM therapies that have been promoted as effective for conditions related to cancer. Each entry describes the therapy and its history and provides a review of the scientiflc evidence in peer-reviewed medical literature. General chapters address issues of safety, doctor-patient relationship, and insurance
coverage. A broad range of topics are covered, including herbs, vitamins, minerals, diet, manual healing, and alternative treatment methods.

Kumar, Nagi B. 2002. Integrative Nutritional Therapies for Cancer: A Scientific Guide to Natural Products Used to Treat and Prevent Cancer. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons Publishing Group.

Specialists from the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute provide current information on the most common complementary nutritional therapies for prevention and treatment of cancer. Arranged alphabetically, each of the 36 entries covers the background, chemistry, potential uses, safety/toxicity and recommendations based on scientific consensus
and references. The appendices include a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) list of unsafe herbs, supplements associated with injury and illness, and a table of drug, nutrient, and supplement interactions.




This article was originally published on 7/12/2014 and last revision and update of it was 9/14/2015.