A new survey reveals that one in three cancer patients uses complementary and alternative treatments such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture, herbal medicine, chiropractic care and supplements.
Herbal supplements are the most commonly used forms of alternative medicine, as well as chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey.
The findings, published in the journal JAMA Oncology, also show that among patients who use alternative approaches, 29 percent do not inform their doctors.
“Younger patients are more likely to use complementary and alternative medicines and women were more likely to, but I would have thought more people would tell their doctors,” said study author Dr. Nina Sanford, an assistant professor of radiation oncology from the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center in Dallas.
Many survey respondents reported that they did not say anything because their doctors did not ask, or they did not think their doctors needed to know.
Sanford and other cancer specialists agree this is concerning, especially in the case of herbal supplements.
“You don’t know what’s in them,” Sanford said. “Some of these supplements are kind of a mishmash of different things. Unless we know what’s in them, I would recommend patients avoid using them during radiation because there’s likely not data on certain supplements, which could interfere with treatment. With radiation specifically, there is concern that very high levels of antioxidants could make radiation less effective.”
Dr. David Gerber, a lung cancer specialist at UTSW, said physicians need to know if their patients use herbal supplements because they can completely throw off traditional cancer treatments.
“They may interact with the medicines we’re giving them, and through that interaction it could alter the level of the medicine in the patient,” he said. “If the levels get too high, then toxicities increase, and if the levels get too low, the efficacy would drop.”
While doctors are cautious about the use of herbs and other supplements during traditional forms of treatment, they are much more open to meditation and yoga as these practices can help patients cope with the shock of a cancer diagnosis and the stress of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
“We strongly advise patients to stay active and engage in exercise during treatment,” Sanford said. “A common side effect of radiation is fatigue. I let the patients know that the patients who feel the most fatigue are the ones who are the most sedentary and that those who are doing exercise are the ones who frequently have the most energy.”
Belindy Sarembock, 53, a patient from Dallas, said she practiced yoga during her treatments for breast cancer. She started the classes with skepticism and quickly became convinced of the benefits.
“I was one who would have laughed at yoga before breast cancer, but now it just helps me so much,” she said. “It’s just so relaxing, I just feel so good after I leave. It’s just so peaceful. For your body, I can’t think of anything better than that.”
She suffered from neuropathy, or nerve damage, from chemotherapy and reported that yoga almost immediately took the pain away.
“I couldn’t get onto my toes. After the second time of going to yoga, I was able to go onto my toes,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the yoga earlier. It was just such a benefit and helped me so much. I highly recommend it to anyone.”
Source: UT Southwestern Medical Center