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Cancer: Exploring the Alternatives

Cancer: Exploring the Alternatives

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"People need information and they need to understand that these supplements aren't 100% benign," Birdsall cautions. "That doesn't mean you necessarily have to avoid them (St. John's wort, for example, can be helpful for people suffering from mild to moderate depression, but it should only be taken at a certain point during the chemotherapy cycle). But you need to talk to your doctor about what you'd like to take.

Which is something not many patients are willing to do. Forty to 60 percent of patients will not tell their medical doctors that they are taking so-called natural supplements, says Birdsall. Why? Because they're afraid of the doctor's negative reaction, Birdsall says, and because they assume that if the doctor didn't bring it up, it's not important.

Terri Ades, MS, director of quality of life/health promotion strategy and health content products for the American Cancer Society, says it's important to distinguish between alternative and complementary therapies.

Alternative medicine is generally thought to be any therapy used instead of the current standard treatment. "Laetril [vitamin B-17], for example, used alone as the only cancer treatment would be considered an alternative," says Ades.

Complementary therapies, on the other hand, are used along with standard cancer treatment, and are typically used to improve the quality of life and not to treat the cancer. Relaxation, guided imagery, massage, tai chi, music, and art therapy are examples.

As more and more people learn about complementary therapies and their benefits, says Ades, and understand that alternatives haven't been proven to be effective, there will very likely be a change in current trends, and it may have begun already.

"We can see that people are turning more to complementary therapies to improve their quality of life," says Ades. "Cancer centers are adding integrative medicine programs that offer complementary therapies to their services. And researchers are realizing that these alternatives need to be studied so we know either that they are or aren't effective. We need these answers."

According to Ades, those who typically turn to alternative (as opposed to complementary) therapies, are those who have limited or no standard treatment for their cancer or those who fear the effects of cancer treatment. "Most people want to know that something can be done and if it means turning to an alternative, some will make this choice. They are willing to try an alternative even knowing that it hasn't been through the appropriate clinical trials to prove its safety and effectiveness."

Birdsall won't give his patients a blanket veto when it comes to herbal supplements. But he does want them to know that each individual case is different. "You have to look at the individual parameters," he says. "Breast cancer is different from ovarian cancer which is different from colon cancer which is different from prostate cancer." Even chemotherapy regimens differ from cancer to cancer, from patient to patient.

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