When diagnosed with cancer, many people turn to alternative cancer therapies to help themselves. For example, you might decide to see an acupuncturist or a naturopathic doctor (ND). You might want to take dietary supplements or herbs. Many of these options can be part of your cancer care. But one of the most important things you can do is to discuss this with your medical team first.
Considering Alternative Cancer Therapies
Alternative cancer therapies can go by several names. You may hear these approaches referred to as complementary and alternative medicine, CAM, alternative medicine, or integrative medicine.
Certain alternative cancer therapies can be used at the same time as conventional cancer care. Some may even help you get through cancer treatment with fewer side effects. Acupuncture, for example, has been shown to lessen the nausea and vomiting associated with some types of chemotherapy. Some cancer centers even offer this and similar services on site.
Other alternative therapy approaches may not work safely with regular cancer treatment. And for others, we just don't have enough information to know if they are safe to take during cancer treatment.
Helpful, Harmful, or Neutral?
Dietary supplements are a good example of something that may help, harm, or be neutral when used at the same time as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. It all depends on the type of supplement, the type of cancer, the type of treatment you are getting, and other medical conditions you have.
Natural Alternative Cancer Therapies Not Always Safer
It's a common belief that if something is "natural," such as an herb or a vitamin, it must be safe. Even if an alternative cancer therapy is 100% natural, it can cause problems with your regular cancer treatments. There are a couple of potential problems that can occur when alternative cancer therapies interact with other cancer medicines.
It's possible that an alternative cancer therapy will make your cancer treatments more toxic to you. This can worsen side effects and make you very ill. Another possibility is that a dietary supplement may decrease your cancer treatment effectiveness. You may not get the full benefits of your cancer treatments.
What About Regulation of Alternative Cancer Therapies?
Also remember that many alternative medicines, therapies, and supplements are not very closely regulated. This means there is little quality control over them. There may be no way to verify claims being made about alternative cancer therapies, procedures, and products. You may not get what you pay for. More concerning, a contaminated product or therapy could make you sick.
This is why it is so important to keep your medical team informed about any type of cancer care you are considering doing on your own. They can help you determine if these treatments are safe for you.
Discussing Alternative Cancer Therapies with Your Doctor
Many people are afraid to tell their doctor about alternative cancer therapies. They fear their doctor will judge them unfavorably for wanting to try other approaches to cancer care. But if you decide to use any type of alternative medicine, make sure your medical team knows this.
The reality is that many doctors are supportive of the use of alternative therapies and encourage your honesty, which only helps them provide the best care for you. If you do find yourself in the care of a less open-minded physician, try saying something like the following:
"I recognize that you have concerns about my use of X, Y, or Z therapies, but without specific research supporting your concerns, I do plan to use them. You can note that you've discussed your concerns with me in the medical chart. Please note that I am using X, Y, and Z therapies in my chart too, so that we are all on the same page.
If you notice that I develop any unusual side effects during treatment and you are concerned that they may be due to my use of X, Y, or Z, please let me know. We can revisit the issue. If you learn of any research suggesting X, Y, or Z should not be used at the same time as my regular cancer therapies, please let me know."
It's much better that your medical team is informed about alternative cancer therapies you are planning to try. It might feel hard to have this conversation with your doctor, but in the end, you'll get safer, more effective medical care.
National Cancer Institute. Thinking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People with Cancer. Accessed July 18, 2010. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/therapy/CAM
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Cancer and CAM. Accessed July 18, 2010. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/cancer/camcancer.htm