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Alternative and Complementary Therapies: Popular but Potentially Dangerous?

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"Physicians should get on the web and research every product their patients are using. As patient advocates, you don't want them throwing away their money, per se. And when they are getting chemo or radiation, it is not recommended that they have any alternative therapies."

Von Gruenigen also asked the cancer patients how much they estimated spending for such activities during the course of their illness; they reported spending between $35 and $3,000 -- an average of $711. Only about 18% was covered by insurance.

"I think this is great information," says Mary Richardson, MD, director of the University of Texas Center for Alternative Medicine Research in Cancer in Houston. "I am thrilled to see this, for physicians and patients. These kinds of surveys get on the radar screen of people." Richardson was not involved in this study but reviewed it for WebMD. She says that a recent survey she and her colleagues undertook also found a high rate of complementary and alternative medicine use among cancer patients, particularly women and people with higher levels of education. In addition to these therapies, many patients also prayed.

Richardson agrees that physicians should more routinely delve deeper to find out which other products or supplements their patients might be taking. But Richardson stops short of saying that all supplements would counteract the effects of chemotherapy or radiation. "The bottom line is we need to conduct a great deal of research to answer these questions," she says.

In the survey, a majority of people also reported that they believed they were being helped by the supplements or practices. And it is easy to understand their motivation, Richardson says.

"People want to do everything they can to maximize their options, especially [terminal] patients who have no options," she says. "Just the fact of having some sense of control over your life and feeling like you are doing something" can be their motivation. "People have become very proactive, and there is information flying all over the place."

She suggests that if people are going to consult alternative medicine practitioners, they inform their primary physician and should even ask the two to consult with one another about the person's progress.

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