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Cancer: Exploring the Alternatives

Cancer: Exploring the Alternatives

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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.

"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.

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