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Cancer: Exploring the Alternatives

Cancer: Exploring the Alternatives

WebMD Feature

When cancer strikes, most people will try anything to win the battle. One place most people with cancer are turning is complementary or alternative medicine. And while most cancer patients feel that this treatment definitely benefits them, recent findings cast doubt on the safety of this decision.

People diagnosed with cancer are at a "frightful" time in their life, says B. Jay Brooks Jr., MD, chairman of the department of hematology/oncology at the Ochsner Clinic in Baton Rouge. "When they hear what we have to offer them, they often look to explore other ways to help themselves."

In fact, in a study of 356 cancer patients at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, 70% of those surveyed had used some form of alternative medicine during the previous year -- either receiving care from an alternative healthcare provider or taking at least one alternative supplement (other than a daily multivitamin). In addition, almost all said they noticed a significant improvement in their well-being.

That doesn't mean that if you're suffering from cancer you should join them.

"A lot of people take supplemental medicines," says Brooks. "Unfortunately, these products are totally unregulated by the FDA and we don't really know what's in them."

One such supplement was PC-SPES, a popular alternative treatment for prostate cancer. In recent months, however, the product was found to contain various prescription medications such as the hormone DES, the blood thinner warfarin, and the arthritis drug indomethacin. "In effect, the 'herbal' ingredients appeared to be a camouflage for the prescription ingredients, allowing the product to be sold as a supplement and avoiding the scrutiny of the FDA," says Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com Cooperman. PC-SPES was voluntarily recalled by the company following these reports.

"Patients don't like to hear this," says Brooks. "But people are spending enormous amounts of money on things that can hurt them."

Some of these supplements in and of themselves are not harmful, Brooks says, but when taken by people with certain cancers, or those undergoing certain treatments, they can be dangerous. High doses of vitamin C, for example, can be detrimental for those with head and neck cancer; St. John's wort and milk thistle can interfere with the body's metabolism of certain chemotherapy agents; and natural estrogens and soy products can increase the chance of having a heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer.

Tim Birdsall, ND, national director of naturopathic medicine for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, says hardly a week goes by without a new "natural" therapy being touted as a way to treat cancer. "Patients come in with grocery bags full of supplements," he says. Some of the supplements -- like melatonin -- may actually be beneficial in slowing the growth of tumors, says Birdsall (although he cautions that it should not be taken without medical supervision). Others, like shark cartilage, essiac, noni juice, and saw palmetto, aren't harmful, but they haven't been shown to be effective either.

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