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Danger of using complementary medicines to treat cancer

There are significant risks in using complementary medicine to treat cancer, says Professor Edzard Ernst.

Researchers from Portland, Oregon identified 61 breast cancer patients who had refused or delayed standard treatments in favour of complementary and alternative medicines [1]. A retrospective chart analysis showed that ‘alternative therapies used as primary treatment for breast cancer are associated with disease progression and increased risk of recurrence and death. Diminished outcomes are more profound in those delaying/omitting surgery. Reviewing these results with our patients may help bridge the gap between CAM and standard treatments’ [1].

In another recent paper, researchers from Minnesota reported an RCT with 43 patients suffering from ovarian cancer [2]. They received either state of the art chemotherapy or the same regimen plus therapeutic massage, clinical hypnotherapy and healing touch: ‘In comparing the groups, there was no difference in overall quality of life measurements during treatment. There was no improvement in rehospitalization rate, delays in chemotherapy, antiemetic use and infection rate in the CAM versus control group. Evaluating immunologic profiles revealed no differences in WBC count, cytotoxic immune response based on CD8+T cells, CD4+helper T cells, natural killer cells, or salivary IgA levels. Six months after chemotherapy, there was no improvement in QoL in the CAM versus control group.'(2)

What do those two studies tell us? The dangers of CAM as a treatment of serious conditions like cancer lie predominantly in using it as a substitute for effective treatments. Whenever this happens, the use of CAM can become life-threatening regardless of the fact that the treatments themselves are devoid of risks. Even if CAM is used as an adjunct, and even if the treatments are per se harmless, there are significant risks. They include raising false hopes and spending scarce resources on ineffective interventions.

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter

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