Despite some doubt among medical professionals, a growing number of Americans are looking beyond what conventional medicine offers to seek new ways to treat chronic illnesses. A recent study suggests that cancer patients under the age of 65 who want to ease the symptoms and side effects of their traditional treatment count among the converts.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey involving nearly 970 adults with breast, lung, and gastrointestinal tumors who received treatment at cancer centers between mid-2010 and late 2011. More than half of the participants knew of their cancer diagnosis a year before completing the survey. Nearly 60 percent of them tried at least one form of complementary or alternative medicine therapy. That group consisted of patients below the age of 65 with some college education who didn’t use chemotherapy.
Participants in the study were more likely to be receptive to alternative treatments if they had used them previously and if they had lived with their cancer diagnosis for a longer time than their counterparts. For some patients, barriers to complementary and alternative treatment included lack of knowledge about the options, a lack of insurance coverage, and a dearth of nearby providers. These issues significantly affected people of color, researchers said.
“We found that the baby boomers are much more likely to use complementary and alternative therapies than their parents, in part due to a social change in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s with a big social movement toward things like a macrobiotic diet and yoga that made these things more mainstream,” senior study author Dr. Jun Mao, the director of integrated oncology at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told Reuters Health.
Recent polls reveal some signs of the social change that Dr. Mao mentioned, particularly among younger people who say they’re growing more health conscious.
By the early 2000s, the number of people who sought complementary and alternative medicine nearly doubled, with one in three doing so because of what they described as an “unmet medical need.” Today, one in three people in the United States seeks alternative forms of medicine — including fish oil, probiotics, melatonin, chiropractic medicine, and yoga, according to two National Institutes of Health studies. Five percent of respondents in those studies also said that fish oil and melatonin served as their sole form of medication.
Experts speculate that a growing disdain for conventional medicine may have occurred amid skepticism about the medical industry, increasing distrust of doctors, and soaring costs of prescription drugs and other medical services. Another critique of conventional medicine lies in the financial influence wielded by big companies in the pharmaceutical industry, which may jeopardize the safety and efficiency of government-approved medications.
Now, a growing number of hospitals and cancer treatment facilities are supplementing their medical care with Eastern-based treatments and therapies. Some medical schools have also integrated complementary and alternative medicine into their curricula in a manner that allows practitioners-in-training to infuse the best practices from both conventional and alternative medical traditions.
Proponents of complementary and alternative medicine say that the breathing exercises, meditation, and postures practiced in yoga may help cancer patients increase their muscle tone, improve their respiration, reduce their weight, and improve their cardiovascular health. Reducing stress, which can reveal itself in physical pain, is the overall objective in practicing yoga. The same applies for acupuncture, a pain relief strategy that involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through the skin at strategic points. Experts say this form of medicine may ease pain and boosts the effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs.
Even so, some members of the medical community remain hesitant about complementary and alternative medicine’s potential to heal, arguing that there’s a lack of evidence-based understanding of treatments and therapies. For example, Amy Tuteur, MD of Science-Based Medicine, a website replete with evaluations of popular medical treatments and products, says that the alternative medicine movement — like those built around natural childbirth and vaccine skepticism — are fueled by “reflexive doubt” and the denial of scientific data that supports conventional medicine.
For more than 10 years, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine — housed under NIH — has spent more than $120 million annually to research the benefits of alternative medicine, but has mostly come up empty. Some doctors who weren’t involved in Mao’s study pointed out that it didn’t distinguish between the alternative approaches that lack any evidence about their effectiveness and the complementary therapies that have more of a track record of helping to relieve cancer patients’ symptoms.
Dr. Mao, meanwhile, said the findings in the study could provide a jumping-off point to better integrating alternative therapies into patient-centered cancer programs. Other doctors who focus on integrative medicine agree, but stress that such programs should have a foundation in cancer research, and shouldn’t completely replace traditional treatments like chemotherapy.
“It’s very important that they have experience in working with cancer patients, and that they absolutely don’t recommend something in place of conventional care,” Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, director of the integrative medicine program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Reuters Health. “I wouldn’t go to a person who recommended supplements and told me to go off chemo, or someone who didn’t take the time to ask what medications I have had so far to treat cancer.”