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Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use in Patients With Cancer

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Key Points

  • Among 3,118 participants with a history of cancer, 1,023 reported use of complementary and alternative medicine in the past 12 months.
  • Factors associated with use of complementary and alternative medicine were white race, female sex, non-Hispanic ethnicity, and younger age.
  • 29% of people in the study who reported use of complementary and alternative medicine did not tell their physicians.

In a recent study focusing on patients with cancer and cancer survivors, one-third of patient participants reported use of complementary and alternative medicines such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and supplements. These findings were published by Sanford et al in JAMA Oncology.

Methods and Results

Researchers analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey.

Among 3,118 participants with a history of cancer, 1,023 reported use of complementary and alternative medicine in the past 12 months. Herbal supplements were the most common alternative medicine, and chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation was the second most common. Factors associated with use of complementary and alternative medicine were white race, female sex, non-Hispanic ethnicity, and younger age.

“Younger patients are more likely to use complementary and alternative medicines and women were more likely to, but I would have thought more people would tell their doctors,” said first author Nina Sanford, MD, of UT Southwestern Medical Center, referring to the additional finding that 29% of people in the study who reported use of complementary and alternative medicine did not tell their physicians. Many survey respondents said they did not say anything because their doctors did not ask, or they did not think their doctors needed to know.

Dr. Sanford and other cancer specialists agree this is concerning, especially in the case of herbal supplements.

“…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,” said Dr. Sanford.

While doctors are highly cautious about the use of herbs and other supplements during treatment, they are much more open to meditation and yoga as practices that can help patients cope with the shock of a cancer diagnosis and the stress of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

“We strongly advise patients to stay active and engage in exercise during treatment,” Dr. Sanford said. “A common side effect of radiation is fatigue. I let the patients know that the patients who feel the most fatigue are the ones who are the most sedentary and that those who are doing exercise are the ones who frequently have the most energy.”

The study authors concluded, “Additional research is needed to assess health outcomes, quality of life, and cost implications associated with complementary and alternative medicine use in the oncology patient population.”

Disclosure: The study authors’ full disclosures can be found at jamanetwork.com.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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