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  health > cancer > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Cancer physicians discuss the use of alternative therapies

May 24, 1999
Web posted at: 2:10 PM EDT (1810 GMT)

In this story:

Alternative therapies

The need for research

Mixed reactions


By Laura Lane

(WebMD) -- Alternative therapies came into the limelight recently, when more than 100 oncologists congregated at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference in Atlanta to discuss the role of alternative and complementary therapies for treating cancer.

The all-afternoon symposium marked the first time the conference, which attracts more than 18,000 physicians annually, opened a dialogue on the subject of alternative medicine.

"It's time we begin to look at these things," said Dr. Mary Ann Richardson, program director of the University of Texas Center for Alternative Medicine Research. "There clearly is an interest not only among the oncology community to move forward with research investigations, but also a general desire among practitioners to find out what's going on in terms of evaluating [alternative therapies]."

After a keynote speech by Dr. Arnold Relman of the Harvard Medical School, speakers presented information on several areas including research in alternative medicine and the use of nutrition and dietary supplements in treating cancer.

Alternative therapies

Americans are becoming more and more interested in alternative therapies, said Dr. Michael Lerner, author of "Choices in Healing," a highly acclaimed book that explores complementary cancer treatments.

Cancer patients can be bombarded with a number of remedies -- from ancient herbal remedies to vitamin supplements -- that purport to cure their disease. Caution is the best approach when using alternative therapies, Lerner said.

"There are definite benefits for cancer patients among the ethical complementary cancer therapies," said Lerner, who is also the president of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute that offers educational programs for cancer patients. "But there has been an uncritical acceptance of some very dubious treatments that are unlikely to do any good and may even harm some patients," he added. "So it's very positive that ASCO is trying to play a role in that sorting process, which is what this conference represents." Lerner supports complementary treatments that involve spiritual and psychosocial support, a healthy diet, and physical approaches such as massage and yoga -- all of which are "intrinsically health promoting," he said. However, he emphasizes that cancer patients should first seek conventional treatments because they are scientifically proven to work.

Used alongside conventional treatment, complementary therapies are most effective in relieving pain and enhancing quality of life rather than curing cancer, said Dr. Barrie Cassileth, who also spoke at the symposium. Modalities such as meditation, yoga, acupressure and massage therapy can help relieve pain, stress and anxiety. Cancer patients can also drink peppermint tea to relieve indigestion or use ginger to ease nausea. "They are very effective and they [make you] feel good," Cassileth said.

The need for research

Eventually doctors may make alternative therapies standard in conventional treatments. But that won't happen until scientists do more research to characterize the effectiveness of alternative medicine, said Richardson, who presented a review on alternative medicine research during the symposium.

With more research, acupuncture, for example, may be integrated into chemotherapy treatments. The ancient Chinese procedure reduces chemotherapy-induced nausea. Because patients' complaints of nausea sometimes prompts doctors to administer less chemotherapy, acupuncture may allow chemotherapy to be used more effectively.

Dr. David Spiegel has seen group therapy have a very positive effect on cancer patients at the Complementary Medicine Clinic at UCSF/Stanford Medical Center, where he is the medical director. He said that more research will help make beneficial therapies, such as psychological counseling, available to more patients. "We ought to do what we can do based on scientific evidence of efficacy," Spiegel said.

Mixed reactions

The reactions of oncologists and other audience members were mixed, said Dr. Cassileth, author of "The Alternative Medicine Handbook." While some audience members clearly were supportive of alternative therapies, others were somewhat resistant.

Not surprisingly, many oncologists were skeptical because most alternative treatments haven't yet undergone the rigors of scientific study. However, oncologists who attended the symposium came away more educated. "Physicians who attended the symposium learned a great deal," said Cassileth. "Patients will benefit from their physician's increased knowledge and increased sensitivity, no question."

Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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