Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are therapies that are not considered the standard of care for a medical condition, and they represent $30 billion per year in consumer spending. CAM are typically described as natural remedies and include therapies like diet and exercise, meditation, acupuncture, and herbal supplements, among others. These therapies are rarely held to the same scrutiny used to evaluate standard treatments and their effects – or lack thereof – are often not well-understood alone or in combination with the standard of care. Unfortunately, natural doesn’t always translate to safe, especially when combined with cancer treatment like radiation.

Despite lack of proof that many CAM are beneficial to treat cancer, and evidence that some therapies may cause harm, the American Cancer Society reported that almost 40% of Americans believe that cancer can be cured through CAM without any other treatment, and the use of CAM is increasing in the US, particularly among whites, women, and younger patients.

Additionally, a 2019 study published in JAMA Oncology found that 1 in 3 US cancer patients use some form of CAM in addition to standard cancer treatment. One-third of these patients reported using herbal supplements that can interfere with radiation or become dangerous when mixed with certain prescription medications.

Dr. Nina Sanford, assistant professor of radiation oncology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who was part of the study, 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."

But not all CAM have negative effects. The American Cancer Society promotes CAM therapies like acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, and art or music therapy that may make patients feel better, reduce stress, and improve sleep as they are undergoing radiation or other cancer treatment.

Any way you look at it, it’s important for doctors to understand their patients in full, including any CAM they are pursuing, to provide the best treatment plan possible.

Why This Matters 

As alternative therapies continue to gain traction and physicians have even less time to manage patient relationships, the potential for adverse outcomes will grow. Education for physicians on the magnitude of CAM use among cancer patients and studies to better understand their potential effects are essential to making sure patients are getting the most benefit and the least harm from their treatment plan.

About the Author:

Erica is Director of Insights in Columbus, OH. She has profound interest in generating data-driven insights to improve health and business outcomes. With a PhD in epidemiology and 10 years’ experience in research, analytics, and product development, Erica loves to connect the dots to describe and predict trends in patient health and consumer behavior and elevate product positioning.