Some cancer patients have started turning to alternative or complementary therapies for cancer in addition to their doctor’s suggested treatment plan. However, herbal medicines don’t always interact well with chemotherapy drugs or radiation.

A new study by Dr. Nina Sanford of UT Southwestern Medical Center found that around one-third of cancer patients are supplementing their treatment with alternative therapies. Some individuals are turning to massage, yoga and mindfulness practices to cope with stress, depression and pain. Others are turning to herbal remedies and supplements—a practice that can be dangerous.

One-Third of Patients Use Complementary Therapies for Cancer

Through her research, Dr. Sanford learned that one-third of cancer patients are using complementary treatments. Most of these patients are young females. The most common type of alternative therapy they chose was herbal supplementation. Using supplements was commonly followed by chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation.

However, the biggest concern that Dr. Sanford’s research raised was the number of individuals who do not tell their doctor that they are using alternative therapies.

Of the patients using alternative therapies, 29% didn’t inform their doctors.

This can potentially pose health problems because some alternative medicines, like herbs and nutrients, interact with cancer drugs rendering them ineffective.

Risks of Herbs and Supplements During Cancer Treatment

While using complementary therapies for cancer is not always a bad thing, there are certain risks associated with using herbs and supplements during mesothelioma treatment.

Doctors warn of the possible adverse effects of herbal supplements during cancer treatment:

  • Increase the risk of bleeding during surgery
  • Prolong the effects of anesthesia
  • Increase the toxicity levels of cancer drugs
  • Decrease the effectiveness of radiation and chemotherapy

St. John’s Wort, for example, is a popular supplement for cancer patients because it helps with mild and moderate depression. However, St. John’s Wort can interact with certain chemotherapy drugs and prevent them from working. So while a patient’s depression might be treated, their cancer will not be.

Dr. Sanford and other physicians are encouraging cancer patients to make their doctors aware of any and all supplements or vitamins they may be taking—even if they don’t specifically ask for that information. If they know what their patients are taking, they may know how it will impact their cancer treatment and whether or not it is safe for their patients to use.

To make matters worse, patients won’t always know everything that’s in their supplements, so even if they tell their doctors what they are taking, their doctors might not know what impact it will have on their treatment.

Some Complementary Therapies Are Safe and Beneficial

While doctors are nervous about their patients using herbal medicines and supplements, not all alternative therapies are dangerous. For instance, yoga, mindfulness and relaxation techniques are excellent forms of complementary therapy to help cancer patients manage the stress and side effects that accompany mesothelioma treatment.

Several studies have found that cancer patients are 20% more likely than other people to commit suicide. Holistic therapies like massage and yoga can help alleviate stress and depression and improve well-being during difficult treatments.

The need for these holistic health approaches is so vital that some cancer centers, like Van Elslander and H. Lee Moffitt, offer integrative cancer therapy programs which include yoga, bodywork healing and other alternative therapies to help support their patients’ overall health.

It’s important to understand that though these therapies can help improve your well-being during cancer treatment, they are not a replacement for conventional mesothelioma therapies.

Work With Your Doctor to Develop a Cancer Safe Treatment Plan

It’s important for mesothelioma patients to feel like they are in control of their treatment plan. Sometimes that will mean participating in alternative therapies such as tai chi or nutrition plans to alleviate some of the conditions caused by treatment side effects, such as anxiety or weight loss.

Just remember, if you are taking herbs or supplements, always talk to your doctor about it. If you are facing anxiety or other health issues during treatment, ask your specialist about safe and natural ways to manage stress and maintain health during mesothelioma treatment.

View Author and Sources

  1. "One-third of cancer patients use complementary and alternative medicine," UT Southwestern Medical Center. Retrieved from: Accessed April 30, 2019.
  2. "St John's wort," Cancer Research UK. Retrieved from: Accessed April 30, 2019.
  3. "Surgery Patients Unaware of Herbal Risk," WebMD. Retrieved from: Accessed May 3, 2019.

Last modified: May 11, 2019