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Cancer Alternative Care: Does It Work?

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Americans spend about $27-billion a year on complementary and alternative forms of cancer care. In the past five years there's been a real push to evaluate these therapies, to know which ones should be incorporated into conventional care and which are best avoided.

Doctor Kim Mulvihill tells us how the therapies measure up.

Studies show that nine out of ten cancer patients use some type of complementary and alternative medicine. But do they work and are they safe?

To help answer those questions researchers from Harvard studied all the available evidence, reviewing over 400 different studies.

They looked at six categories of therapies most often used by cancer patients:

  1. Dietary changes and supplements
  2. Herbal products
  3. Acupuncture
  4. Massage
  5. Exercise
  6. Psychological or mind-body therapies They addressed what works: Does it fight cancer, does it ease symptoms? And what's safe: Are there side effects, and does it interfere with conventional cancer treatment? They weighed the evidence and decided whether a given therapy should be recommended or discouraged. As reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, they found no magic bullets. They say the most effective therapies will help ease symptoms, but not fight cancer directly. Acupuncture got a thumbs-up. It's both safe and effective in controlling nausea and vomiting, and can also help ease cancer pain. Vitamin E and soy can also help. But they don't recommend highly restrictive diets, megadoses of injected vitamins, or St John's wort, which can interfere with certain treatments such as chemotherapy. And some things like shark cartilage landed in a gray zone. While it doesn't appear harmful there's no proof it helps. The summary is sure to help physicians and patients alike, but we still have a long way to go. As we learn more about what works and what doesn't, doctors will be better able to counsel their patients and patients will be able to make more informed decisions.

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