ONE-THIRD OF PEOPLE with a cancer diagnosis use complementary and alternative medicines such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and supplements.
UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Nina Sanford, MD, made the discovery that’s drawing renewed attention to habits she said cancer patients must disclose during treatment.
Herbal supplements were the most common alternative medicine, according to Sanford’s analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey. Her findings were published in the journal JAMA Oncology.
“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,” Sanford said, referring to the finding that 29 percent of people who use complementary and alternative medicine did not tell their physicians.
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.”
David Gerber, MD, 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.”
Nancy Myers wanted to use supplements during her 2015-2017 cancer treatments, but she ran it by her doctors first.
“I would ask the physician, ‘Could I?’ and everyone said, ‘No, we don’t know how that interacts with your conventional medicine,’ so I respected that,” the 47-year-old said.
She said she knows of some people with cancer who use only alternative medicine—and no traditional medical treatments. Sanford said this is a dangerous approach that could be fatal.
While doctors are highly cautious about the use of herbs and other supplements during treatment, they are much more open to meditation and yoga as practices that 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.”
This article was adapted from information provided by UT Southwestern Medical Center.
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