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Dealing With Cancer

Can alternatives help?

Improving Quality of Life continued...

Barrie Cassileth, MD, who heads up the Integrative Medicine Outpatient Center at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, agrees. "We know that many of these supportive techniques help patients," she says. "Probably the most broadly effective, safe, and helpful complementary therapy is massage. Other helpful approaches include mind-body techniques, such as progressive relaxation. Music therapy is also great as a way to help patients relax and relieve the inevitable tension they experience while fighting cancer." Cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering are also offered herbs like mint or ginger, which can help relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea.

So far, most of the evidence for alternative approaches is still anecdotal: Patients simply report feeling better after trying them. Proponents believe that's reason enough to offer therapies that are safe and noninvasive.

Fortunately, evidence from clinical trials is beginning to suggest that certain alternative techniques offer measurable benefits. At Stanford University Medical Center, psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD, has been testing the power of such mind-body techniques to improve quality of life. In a 1999 study of 111 patients with breast cancer reported in the June 1999 issue of the journal Psycho-oncology, Spiegel showed that patients taking part in support groups experienced a 40% decrease in their scores on a scale that measures mood disturbance.

In Search of a Cure

Can alternative approaches also help patients fight the disease? This question sparks fierce controversy. Hundreds of so-called "alternative" treatments for cancer are being hawked in health food stores and on the Internet -- treatments that have never been tested in human studies. Some, in fact, are still sold despite convincing evidence that they are worthless. Laetrile, for instance, which first became popular as an "underground" cancer drug in the 1950s, is making a comeback, much to the chagrin of scientists who point to convincing studies that it offers no benefit.

One worry is that unscrupulous purveyors of quack medicine are taking advantage of patients' desperation. Another is that some patients, enamored of these so-called "natural" approaches, will forgo conventional treatments that could help them.

Still, some mainstream experts think that alternative approaches could actually help fight cancer. Spiegel has shown that support groups can help women with breast cancer survive longer, for instance. And new research is underway to put other approaches to the test. One of the fastest-growing areas of research at the NCI is in mind-body medicine, according to White. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health) has begun testing a variety of alternative cancer treatments, from shark cartilage to Chinese herbs (see Alternative Cancer Therapies Go Mainstream).

"What's really exciting is the merging of Western medicine with other, more traditional forms of healing, such as acupuncture and Chinese herbs," says Strang Cancer Prevention Center researcher George Wong, PhD. We're finally beginning to understand that there are many ways to approach a disease like cancer -- and to help patients."

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