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Cancer Genetics

Cancer Treatments

02/04/2005

Question:

In providing treatment to a cancer patient do you feel that the patient would be better off not to practice alternative treatments and just receive those administired by a physician ? Why do you feel this way?

Answer:

Short answer: If you or someone you know is considering using alternative treatments along with a doctor's prescribed therapies, the doctor should be informed and potential risks and complications discussed.

Long answer: Your question is deceivingly complex; the phrase "alternative treatments" can encompass treatments that are not likely to cause significant harm to the patient, including massage therapy, aromatherapy, spiritual healing and acupuncture, up to taking unregulated "nutritional supplements" that may have unlisted ingredients and even potentially harmful ingredients.

First off, keep in mind that I am not an oncologist, nor an MD, so I am not qualified to give medical recommendations.  The use of complementary treatments is currently under investigation by the National Cancer Institute, and some of these treatments have shown some benefit to patients taking them.  Since there is no information in your question about what alternative treatments you are referring to, it is difficult to say whether these treatments are potentially harmful, beneficial, or offer no significant benefits or risks.

There may be some beneficial effect in that the patient feels that he or she is in control of some aspect of the treatment process.  However, a number of natural agents have been found to change the ability of western medications to work properly, leading to either inactivation of the western treatment or increased side-effects.  And just because it comes from a naturally occurring source, it is not necessarily harmless: consider hemlock, foxglove (digitalis), snake venom, spider venom, marijuana and tobacco.

Western medicine tries to rely on treatments that have been found to be effective in carefully controlled trials.  The same cannot be said for most alternative treatments.  And because of the great number of possible options available, it is unlikely that most alternative treatments will ever be proven either safe or beneficial.  

For more information, I have attached a website from the National Cancer Institute that provides some information about alternative treatments.

www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/therapy/CAM

I hope this has been of some help.

For more information:

Go to the Cancer Genetics health topic, where you can:

Response by:

Duane D Culler, PhD, MS Duane D Culler, PhD, MS
Clinical Instructor of Genetics
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University