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Cancer patients should speak up about alternative medicine

A pill bottle on its side with several translucent pills spilling out on a table.

April 29, 2019—A national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that about one-third of people with cancer are using complementary and alternative medicine. The problem with that? About a third of those patients don't tell their doctor, which could affect their treatment.

The dangers of keeping quiet

Complementary and alternative medicine includes nontraditional treatments like:

  • Herbal supplements.
  • Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation.
  • Massage.
  • Yoga, tai chi or qigong.
  • Meditation.
  • Special diets.
  • Acupuncture.

Patients with cancer often use these to treat symptoms, ease their distress or gain a sense of control over their care.

Nearly half of the patients who didn't tell their doctor about treatments like these said they didn't think their doctor needed to know.

But doctors say otherwise. Many are open to some kinds of alternative medicine to help patients cope during cancer treatment. But herbal supplements could interfere with traditional cancer treatments in several ways.

First, they can interact with the medicines doctors give to treat cancer. They may raise or lower the overall level of a cancer medicine in the body, making it either more toxic or less effective.

And it's not just drug interactions that are a concern. High levels of some herbal supplements could make radiation treatments less effective too.

Alternative medicine can also be a problem if patients forgo traditional treatments in favor of unproven ones.

The data comes from CDC's National Health Interview Survey. The analysis was published in the journal JAMA Oncology.

Speak up

Complementary and alternative medicine doesn't have to be dangerous. Some practices can be a helpful part of your cancer care. But if you want to take supplements during cancer treatment, talk to your doctor first.

To learn more, visit our Alternative Medicine health topic center.

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