Herbal and Nonherbal Supplement Use in the Cancer Patient
Soy protein, green tea extract, melatonin -- these may sound like strange remedies for cancer, but they are actually the subjects of major clinical trials in progress. The supplements are being tested as treatments for cancer or as adjuvant therapy. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds the studies, which are being conducted at cancer centers across the country.
Supplements such as these fall under the category of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Alternative treatments are those used in place of conventional ("Western" or "mainstream") treatments. Complementary treatments are those used in addition to conventional treatments.
Despite what some people may think, herbal and nonherbal supplements may not be totally harmless. For example, some doctors worry if they may interact with cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Many herbal and dietary supplements are proposed to work through the process of being an antioxidant and "cleaning up" free radicals, which may damage cell DNA. But cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, often work by creating those free radicals.
The concern is that if you repair the damage from free radicals, do you repair only damage to the healthy tissue and thereby reduce the side effects and toxicities? Or do you also repair the damage to the tumor?
Until more is known about possible interactions such as these, it is important for the health care team to maintain an open dialogue with patients, routinely asking if supplements are used. Patients should also take the initiative to inform their doctor or nurse if they are using supplements.
If you are interested in trying a supplement, here are some things you should do:
Research the supplement thoroughly. Visit reputable Web sites, such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Ask your doctor about new information on the supplement, preferably from clinical trials rather than anecdotal evidence or personal testimonials.
Speak with people who have used the supplement, especially those who have a health condition similar to yours.
Be selective if seeking the advice of a practitioner of alternative and complementary medicine. Check with state or local medical boards or other health regulatory boards regarding the practitioner's licensure, education, and any details about his or her practice, including any complaints on record.
Always let your doctor or nurse know of supplements you are taking or considering, as they may affect your current cancer treatment.
What are possible benefits of the supplement?
Are there any known risks or negative side effects? Will the supplement interact with my current cancer treatment -- either weakening or strengthening the treatment?
How long should I use the supplement?
What results can I expect from the supplement?
Remember that testimonials from patients are not enough to go on when choosing a supplement. Controlled clinical trials provide more reliable information about the effectiveness and side effects of any supplement.