Cancer Patients Try Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture, Naturopathy Popular Among Women With Cancer

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 24, 2004 -- Cancer patients are more likely to try alternative medicine like acupuncture and naturopathy in addition to getting conventional treatments, a new study shows.

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Cancer, providesa snapshot of the growing acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine.

Scientific evidence shows that acupuncture is effective as a pain therapy. Naturopathic medicine is a holistic approach to wellness that involves lifestyle and nutrition counseling, as well as herbal and other therapies to aid the body in achieving a more natural state.

Lead researcher William E. Lafferty, MD, with the University of Washington, has analyzed 357,709 insurance claims for these therapies -- 7,915 made by people with a cancer diagnosis. He found:

  • Among the cancer patients, 7% had used naturopathy, acupuncture, or massage therapy, and 12% had used chiropractic, reports Lafferty.
  • Women, whether they had cancer or not, were more likely to use alternative therapy compared with men -- especially massage therapy, he says.
  • People with cancer were twice as likely to use either naturopathy or acupuncture compared with people without cancer.
  • Women with more advanced cancer -- and who were getting chemotherapy treatments -- were more likely to try naturopathy and acupuncture.


In another study, women with breast cancer were more likely to use alternative therapies to help relieve stress, Lafferty writes.

Use of these therapies is likely to grow, since insurance coverage is growing, he writes. Also, the scientific evidence regarding certain alternative medicine treatments -- like acupuncture for pain and nausea -- will certainly prompt more patients to try it.

Chiropractic, the most common form of alternative medicine in general use today, is considered safe in most circumstances, he writes. However, reports of complications when used in treating some cancer patients may limit use of chiropractic in cancer treatment.

Indeed, chiropractic spinal manipulation may not really be relevant to cancer treatment, he writes.

The low use of massage therapy was "surprising," given the scientific evidence that massage helps several cancer-related conditions, including pain and arm swelling related to breast cancer surgery, Lafferty writes.

Nevertheless, a substantial number of insured cancer patients will use alternative medicine if they are given the choice, he points out. Even if it isn't covered, "the cost of this treatment is modest compared with conventional care," he writes.


SOURCE: Lafferty, W. Cancer, March 2004. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Naturopathic Medicine."

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