Oncologists were urged to be more responsive to cancer patients who want to try alternative medicines. Speaking today (18 October 2002) at the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress in Nice, France, Professor Edzard Ernst from the Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter & Plymouth, UK, said that a lack of openness to other forms of treatment is what drives people to alternative therapies. If they feel they cannot discuss it with their physician it can endanger their lives.
"Be open," said Professor Ernst. "People with cancer are desperate for treatment and will try anything. You would probably do the same!", he told delegates.
Many forms of complementary and alternative medicines are promoted as a prevention of cancer. There is little risk associated with garlic, green tea, phytoestrogens, and panax ginseng, although there is only weak evidence that they are effective.
More alarmingly, there is an increasing number of complementary and alternative therapies that claim to cure cancer, often supported by quasi-scientific data. Essiac, Di Bella therapy, Hoxley formula, mistletoe, and shark cartilage are a few examples of substances that can be dangerous to the patient.
Professor Ernst, who is director of complementary medicine at the medical school, carries out research to acquire much needed data on the efficacy and safety of alternative therapies. "Whether we love or hate them, we must answer the basic questions about complementary or alternative remedies," he said. Little is known about their interaction with conventional medicine and it can be tempting for the patient to give up prescribed therapies.
"Understand that your patients are desperate. If they want to try alternative medicine, advise them which ones carry what risk and which are safe to use in conjunction with conventional therapies," he said.
Reflexology and aromatherapy ease the stress associated with cancer. Acupuncture, for example, can reduce the nausea and vomiting following chemotherapy. The role of such procedures in palliative and supportive care to improve the quality of a patient's life could be very important. Higher quality research into their effects is also needed.
The Internet has made these so-called remedies far more accessible. While Professor Ernst believes that there are very good and very dedicated practitioners of complementary and alternative therapies, he acknowledged the fact that there are rogues in the business of promoting cures, who exploit vulnerable people both financially and emotionally.
As a warning to patients, he said "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."