Dec. 14, 2010 -- Many people diagnosed with incurable brain tumors turn to complementary therapies to slow the growth of their cancer or relieve side effects like fatigue and depression, new research shows.
The study, published in the Dec. 14 issue of the journal Neurology, included completed questionnaires from 621 patients with glioma brain tumors who had received conventional treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, at six cancer centers in Germany.
Slightly more than 40% of the patients who returned the questionnaire reported using some kind of alternative or complementary medicine in addition to their conventional care.
“I’m surprised it was only 40%,” says Linda A. Lee, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center in Baltimore. “In the U.S., it’s been estimated that 80% of cancer patients use some form of complementary therapy.”
At the End of Life, Who Seeks Complementary Care?
Patients younger than age 50, women, and college graduates were more likely to say they had tried complementary therapies.
The six most commonly used alternatives, in order of most to least popular, were homeopathy, vitamins, psychological methods, mineral supplements, boswellia acids, and special diets. Boswellia acids are an ayurvedic herbal medicine derived from the resin of a tree that a handful of studies have linked to the death of brain cancer cells.
The top reasons given for trying complementary remedies included: “To do something for the treatment by myself,” “To build up body resistance,” “To support the use of conventional therapy,” and “To have tried everything possible.”
About 44% of participants said a friend told them about the treatment they had used, 40% had gotten a recommendation from a physician (though that person may not have been an oncologist), and 34% had been directed by a family member.
Reasons given for not trying complementary therapies were cost, lack of information, and lack of scientific proof of their effectiveness.
About 60% said they thought their complementary therapy had improved their general condition, while 40% said they didn’t notice a change.
Even With a Terminal Diagnosis, Alternative Therapies Present Risks
Although it may seem harmless to complement medical treatment, especially in the case of an incurable cancer, where people may feel like they’ve got nothing to lose, Lee says it’s still not a good idea to self-prescribe, particularly in the case of vitamins.
“When people are thinking about taking vitamins, they’re thinking about supporting their healthy cells,” Lee says. “But studies have suggested that vitamins don’t just protect the healthy cells, they may actually protect the cancer cells and help them resist whatever it is we’re trying to use to kill them.”
“Presumably, we’re in the business of helping people improve the quality of their lives,” Lee adds, even in terminal cases.
Other experts say that in addition to the physical harms, there may be psychological and social costs as well.
“I’m very concerned because I see patients in my practice who debate whether they should spend money on an alternative treatment or on their prescription medications,” says Richard T. Lee, MD, center medical director at the integrative medicine program at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Should patients be spending money on these therapies when there’s little evidence that they’ll work?” he asks.
“Patients have needs that aren’t being met,” Richard Lee says. “We as oncologists need to do a better job of engaging them in that discussion.”