Tons of Cancer Patients Use Potentially Dangerous Alternative Treatments Without Telling Their Doctors

Use of therapies like herbal supplements for cancer treatment is startlingly common, says a new study.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

A whopping one-third of people with cancer use these types of complementary and alternative medicines, according to a new study from UT Southwestern Medical Center — and, shockingly, many of these folks aren’t telling their doctors.

More specifically, 29% of people who use complementary and alternative medicine kept that info from their physicians, according to the study, published in the journal JAMA Oncology. Using data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, researchers found that herbal supplements were ranked as the most commonly used alternative medicine, followed by chiropractic manipulation.

"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 and oncologist Nina Sanford, M.D., in a press release. “Many survey respondents said they did not say anything because their doctors did not ask, or they did not think their doctors needed to know.”

Please, don’t hide your alternative therapies from your doctor

Cancer specialists say the fact that patients aren’t informing their docs about what they’re taking is concerning, to say the least — especially when it comes to herbal supplements.

"You don't know what's in them," Dr. Sanford said. "Some of these supplements are kind of a mishmash of different things.”

Because there’s no data on certain supplements, it’s best to avoid them during cancer treatment, says Dr. Sanford, because we simply don’t know how they might interfere — which is especially worrisome if you’re going through radiation treatment: “With radiation specifically, there is concern that very high levels of antioxidants could make radiation less effective."

David Gerber, M.D., a lung cancer specialist at UTSW, expounded on the ways certain herbal supplements can seriously mess with your cancer treatment. "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 in the press release. "If the levels get too high, then toxicities increase, and if the levels get too low, the efficacy would drop."

Further, using solely alternative treatments for your cancer could be fatal, warns Dr. Sanford, pointing to the famous case of Apple founder Steve Jobs, who only tried traditional medicine late in his battle with pancreatic cancer, previously relying on things like special diets and acupuncture.

In fact, so many people use alternative therapies for breast cancer that the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) endorsed specific guidelines on such therapies to help educate patients.

“We know this is a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S., particularly with supplements,” Gary Lyman, M.D., co-chair of the ASCO panel that reviewed the guidelines, told HealthCentral in September 2018. “Patients are spending a huge amount of money on these therapies. Some may be helpful but many will not be. They deserve to know what the best science has to say about these options so they can make informed decisions.”

The ASCO guidelines make it crystal clear: “No strong evidence supports the use of ingested dietary supplements to manage breast cancer treatment–related adverse effects.”

Not all alternative therapies are created equal

While doctors are quick to caution cancer patients about the dangers of herbal supplement use, they often encourage certain other complementary therapies. Take yoga and other forms of exercise, for example.

"We strongly advise patients to stay active and engage in exercise during treatment," Dr. 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." So if you’re feeling tired, exercise may actually help, rather than make fatigue worse.

Yoga, meditation, and other forms of therapy, like music therapy, are also recommended for their mental health benefits for people with cancer, according to the ASCO guidelines. Not only can they help reduce symptoms of depression, but they can boost overall quality of life, too.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at