3 Things to Know About Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Patient Expert

Why do some people eagerly embrace complementary and alternative medicine for cancer (CAM) while others shun it? Doctors Jun Mao and Joshua Baumi of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine wanted to know the answer. They surveyed breast, gastrointestinal, and lung cancer patients about their attitudes towards CAM and how they used it. The National Institutes of Health defines complementary medicine as the use of a non-mainstream practice along with conventional medicine and alternative medicine as using non-mainstream practices instead of conventional medicine. Examples include the use of herbs, relaxation techniques, yoga, acupuncture, and massage.

Their study found that patients’ beliefs about the efficacy of CAM, their fears about side effects, and concerns about barriers to its use were more likely to predict whether patients had used CAM than demographical details like age, race, and education. Some concerns were more common in certain subgroups. Patients on chemotherapy and non-white patients perceived more barriers to CAM while employed, educated women were most likely to believe it useful.

Mao and Baumi, who have previously researched how exercise and acupuncture affect cancer patients, believe that cancer centers need to consider patients’ attitudes towards CAM to design the most effective integrative cancer centers. Integrative cancer centers combine conventional medicine with complementary practices in a coordinated way. Making broad assumptions about CAM use is less likely to be effective. Although the audience for this study is oncologists and hospital administrators, there are implications for cancer patients themselves.

Your doctor is probably more receptive to CAM than you realize.

In this study 58 percent of the patients had used some sort of CAM while other studies suggest that as many as 67 percent do. You may feel like you are the only one trying a special diet or massage treatment, but in fact the majority of cancer patients are. In her professional journals, your doctor is reading research studies about yoga and acupuncture and how they may help patients. Depending on the study, researchers are finding positive effects from many CAM practices or no harm with a positive placebo effect. In other situations, especially with the use of herbs and supplements, there may be negative effects from a treatment. As a patient, you must let your doctor know about what you are trying. You may be surprised at how supportive your doctor is, or your doctor may just raise a skeptical eyebrow. However, in the cases where a practice is dangerous, your doctor can’t help if you don’t tell her.

You need to let your doctor and hospital know about your interest in CAM.

Hospitals are competing for your business. They want to serve their patients’ needs. That’s why more hospitals these days offer nutrition, acupuncture, support groups, massage, and exercise as part of their cancer care. The breast cancer support group at my hospital used guided imagery techniques I found helpful enough to continue to this day. If cost or transportation issues are keeping you from accessing CAM in your community, your hospital needs to know. When you get that follow-up survey after an appointment, be sure to mention that you would like to try acupuncture for your neuropathy pain, but that you need guidance in finding a medically qualified acupuncturist.

You can advance knowledge about CAM if you agree to participate in a clinical trial.

One reason you may get a skeptical look from a doctor about how much a CAM practice has helped you is that there aren’t enough rigorous clinical trials on them. Often the only evidence that a particular activity is beneficial is anecdotal evidence from some satisfied survivors with no comparison to other groups. There is a huge profit incentive to set up a clinical trial for a new drug, and it’s easy to compare patients on Drug A with those on Drug B. Setting up a randomized trial about the benefits of meditation may be more complex. If your doctor or hospital offers you the chance to be in a trial, your participation can help researchers know what works and what doesn’t.

If you are interested in trying some CAM therapies, you can be assured that there is more support than ever from the medical community for their place in treatment programs. Many CAM practices are now practically mainstream.

For more on alternative medicine for breast cancer:

Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Breast Cancer

Complementary and Alternative Therapies (CAM)and Breast Cancer: Your Tax Dollars at Work

Massage May Help You Cope with Breast Cancer

Talking to Your Doctor about Complementary Medicine

What You Didn’t Know About Yoga and How it Helps Treat Breast Cancer


Azvolinsky, A. Views on Alternative Medicines Predict Use in Cancer Patients. May 28, 2015 Cancer Network. Accessed from http://www.cancernetwork.com/news/views-alternative-medicines-predict-use-cancer-patients?GUID=E516FC5C-7604-40FE-85E6-8F7CE4923438&XGUID=&rememberme=1&ts=29052015 September 14, 2015.

Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s in a Name? NIH: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Accessed from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/integrative-health September 14, 2015.