Things I Wish I’d Known Before #3 – How to evaluate complementary therapies

Angelina Jolie - anyone can be affected by breast cancer

Debate rages on the internet following Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she has had a preventative double-mastectomy. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. But where does this leave the person who really matters – the patient?

When serious illness strikes, we search for cures. It’s a perfectly sane reaction to a life-threatening situation. In fact, it may feel almost irresponsible not to do so. Unfortunately there are some people ready and willing to exploit our fear and desperation, whether it be for profit or personal aggrandisement. Others have more philanthropic motives but may be strongly influenced by their own personal belief system.

Then we must contend with our friends – and their friends. Everybody knows somebody whose aunty’s husband’s cousin was ‘cured’ by eating apricot pips or drinking twig tea. Try not to get irritable with them. It’s their way of letting you know that they don’t want you to die.

The problem is that there is just so much information and advice swirling around on the internet. There are websites devoted to promoting the healing properties of flax oil, herbal extracts, mistletoe and bicarbonate of soda. And there are websites that are vehement in their damnation of all complementary therapies without exception.

For the patient, this situation is not helped by the fact that the conventional and complementary professions can be quite mutually antagonistic. Some medical doctors regard all complementary therapists as loony crackpots whilst many in the alternative camp look upon conventional doctors as no better than lazy dupes of the venal drug companies.

There is a problem at the heart of this debate: allopathic (conventional) medicine tends to focus on treating a specific illness and curing its symptoms. Holistic medicine, as the name suggests, tends to focus on the whole organism (that’s you) and preventing illness.

To me it seems axiomatic that anything that contributes to our health and wellbeing, for example eating nourishing food, learning relaxation techniques, gentle exercise and hands-on treatments like massage and shiatsu, can only be positive. Even if the benefits have not been scientifically proven (and in many instances they have) these practices feel empowering and they certainly will do no harm.

There are a growing number of doctors who are beginning to practise what is known as ‘integrative medicine’ where the best aspects of conventional and complementary approaches are combined, for the ultimate benefit of the patient. Unfortunately, their numbers are growing far too slowly.

There is a difference between ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ therapies. Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional medicine to help us to remain as fit and healthy as possible whilst we are undergoing what can be extremely violent and damaging treatment (for example surgery or chemotherapy). Alternative therapies are given instead of conventional treatment.

If you are considering complementary or alternative treatment, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have there been any peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate the efficacy of the therapy being recommended? If so, discuss these with your oncologist.
  • Is the practitioner able to answer detailed questions about the therapy in an informative manner? How, exactly does it work? What are the mechanisms? Can you analyse the evidence? Do they have case studies? What are the potential dangers and side effects?
  • Is the therapy being presented to you as a ‘miracle cure’? This may be hard to accept but, when it comes to cancer, there are no magic bullets.
  • Is the therapy being presented as an alternative to chemotherapy and radiotherapy or as a helpful adjunct to conventional therapies?
  • Is the therapy being sold to you in a manner that seems vaguely bullying or blackmailing? For example: the practitioner tells you about patients who have died after stopping the recommended therapy.
  • Is the therapy vastly expensive?
  • Will you find following the regime punitive and stressful?
  • Does the practitioner belong to a recognised professional body?
  • Does the practitioner have a hostile attitude toward the medical profession?
  • Has the practitioner been disbarred from the medical profession?

Use your common sense. If the practitioner seems mental give them a wide berth.

And one last thing: just because a substance is herbal in origin doesn’t necessarily mean that it is benign. Vitamins, minerals and herbs may interact adversely with other drugs. Please don’t take any kind of supplement without discussing it with your oncologist.

This article was originally published on The Chemo Chic Project.