Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and treatments that are not considered conventional medical care.
Conventional, Complementary or Alternative?
Conventional medical care; is treatment prescribed by qualified health professionals. Its also known as 'authorised’, ‘approved’, ‘mainstream’, ‘proven’ or ‘traditional’. These terms collectively refer to all types of cancer treatment, which has been approved, tested or scientifically proven to be both safe and an effective treatment for cancer.
Complementary medicine is treatment which is used along with conventional medical treatments, but are not considered to be a conventional treatment. One example is using acupuncture to help lessen some side effects of cancer treatment.
Alternative medicine is treatment thats used instead of conventional medical care. One example is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of anticancer drugs (Chemotherapy) which is prescribed by a qualified oncologist.
Integrative medicine is a total approach to medical care that combines conventional medicine which has shown to be safe and effective, alongside CAM treatments.
On the other hand, alternative therapies are meant to replace conventional cancer treatment. Qualified cancer professionals generally don't recommend alternative products and treatments, because there’s is little evidence they are safe or effective against cancer. Many can even be harmful. Remember, stopping or delaying conventional treatment may have serious consequences. See my page about early diagnosis.
Are CAM approaches safe?
Some CAM therapies have undergone careful evaluation and have found to be safe and effective. However there are others that have been found to be ineffective or possibly harmful. Less is known about many CAM therapies, and research has been slower for a number of reasons:
- Time and funding issues
- Problems finding institutions and cancer researchers to work with on the studies
- Regulatory issues
CAM therapies need to be evaluated with the same long and careful research process used to evaluate conventional treatments. Conventional cancer treatments have generally been studied for safety and effectiveness through an intense scientific process, that includes clinical trials with large numbers of patients.
Natural Does Not Mean Safe
CAM therapies include a wide variety of botanicals and nutritional products, such as dietary supplements, herbal supplements and vitamins. Many of these 'natural' products are considered to be safe because they are present in, or produced by, nature. However, that's not true in all cases. In addition, some may affect how well other medicines work in your body. For example, the herb St. John's wort, which some people use for depression, may cause certain anticancer drugs not to work as well as they should.
Herbal supplements may be harmful when taken by themselves, with other substances, or in large doses. For example, some studies have shown that kava kava, a herb that has been used to help with stress and anxiety, may cause liver damage.
Vitamins can also have unwanted effects in your body. For example, some studies show that high doses of vitamins, even vitamin C, may affect how chemotherapy and radiotherapy works. Too much of any vitamin is not safe, even in a healthy person.
Tell your doctor if you're taking any dietary supplements, no matter how safe you think they are. This is very important. Even though there may be advertisements or claims that something has been used for years, this doesn't prove that it's safe or effective. See my page on cancer treatment scams.
Supplements do not have to be approved by a local government before being sold to the public. Also, a prescription is not needed to buy them. Therefore, it's up to consumers or patients to decide whats best for them.
What Should Patients Do When Using or Considering CAM Therapies?
Cancer patients who are considering or using complementary or alternative therapy should talk with their doctor or nurse. Some therapies may interfere with conventional treatment or even be harmful. Its also a good idea to learn whether the therapy has been proven to do what it claims to do.
To find a qualified CAM practitioner, ask your doctor or nurse to suggest someone; don't trust a recommendation on an internet forum! Choosing a CAM practitioner should be done with as much care as choosing a primary cancer oncologist..