Access to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Treatments

Newsletter Type: Medical Malpractice

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What is complementary and alternative medicine?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to any form of therapy or treatment outside the conventional medical therapies for disease. Complementary medicine is used along with conventional medical therapies, while alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine.

How widespread is the use of complementary and alternative medicine therapies?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics conducted a study in 2002, which found that 36 percent of adults had used some form of CAM during the past 12 months. The most commonly used CAM therapies were natural products, deep breathing exercises, meditation, chiropractic care, yoga, massage, and diet-based therapies. Individuals used CAM therapies to treat back and neck pain, colds, joint pain or stiffness, and anxiety or depression. It is interesting to note that prayer specifically for health reasons was used by an additional 26 percent of adults during the same study period.

Do cancer patients use CAM?
Researchers found that 85 percent of cancer patients in the U.S. turned to prayer after learning they had cancer. A marketing consulting group estimated that as many as 80 percent of cancer patients in the United States used special diets, vitamin supplements, herbal remedies, relaxation techniques, or acupuncture in 2002. In addition, a 2004 study found that almost half of women with breast cancer and other types of cancer were using herbal supplements and vitamin products. The medical profession expressed concern that only about half of those using CAM told their doctors they were taking vitamins or herbs. Some dietary supplements have been shown to interfere with cancer treatment. For example, some antioxidant products have been found to decrease the effectiveness of some chemotherapy drugs.

What is the National Institutes of Health's role in complementary and alternative cancer treatments?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) started The Best Case Series Program in 1991 as a way to evaluate CAM in cancer patients. Health care providers using CAM submit patient medical records for critical review by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In addition, NCI is sponsoring clinical trials to study CAM treatments for cancer. Current trials include the use of acupuncture to reduce advanced colon cancer symptoms, the use of shark cartilage for lung cancer, massage therapy for cancer-related fatigue, and mistletoe extract plus chemotherapy for treating solid tumors.

What is the Food and Drug Administration's role in complementary and alternative cancer treatments?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates drugs and medical devices to assure they are safe and effective. The FDA is also responsible for dietary supplements, which include vitamin and herbal products. The FDA has been slow to give its approval to alternative cancer treatments. However, the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act, which was passed in 1997, authorized the FDA to expedite drug development and expand access to unapproved therapies. The FDA is also working to increase the participation of cancer patients in clinical trials.

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