People with cancer believe that it takes more than modern medicine to help them. A study of 750 patients found that most rely on prayer, relaxation techniques, exercise, and sometimes herbs or mega-vitamins, to improve their health. But fewer than half of them discuss using complementary therapies with their doctors.
The University of Rochester study raises many questions about complementary therapies, why patients use them, and why they believe this type of therapy may lead to a cure. It also presents a question for doctors to resolve with their patients: Does taking herbal remedies or high doses of vitamins impact the effectiveness of chemotherapy or radiation therapy? Doctors say better communication with their patients might bring about some of those answers.
"We were a bit surprised by how many people were using these techniques," says Jennifer Yates, an information analyst at the University of Rochester's James P. Wilmot Cancer Center Community Clinical Oncology Program. "And we don't really know why they're using them -- to beat the cancer or to ease the side effects of treatment. Those are questions we still have to ask."
The study, presented this week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in New Orleans, surveyed cancer patients after treatment about the use of non-medical therapies for healing in hopes of gaining a better understanding of how popular they are. They were asked if they used any of the following techniques: prayer, relaxation, exercise, diet, spiritual healing, imagery, massage, herbal medicines, self-help groups, chiropractic care, hypnosis and acupuncture.
The healing power of prayer and relaxation were cited as the most common, with 85 percent of all patients citing the use of prayer. This is consistent with a report released last week by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows 62 percent of people use prayer for health reasons.
In the Rochester study, a quarter of the patients reportedly changed their diets or used mega-vitamins to improve their health, the study shows.
"It's not surprising that people facing serious illnesses pray, or have others praying for them. They believe it may have a positive impact on their overall health and well-being," says Yates, an exercise physiologist.
The finding that patients don't often discuss these therapies with their doctors, oncologist or primary care physician indicates a communication gap -- either the patients don't see it as significant or doctors aren't asking about them, Yates says.
Wilmot Cancer Center oncologist Jennifer J. Griggs, M.D., notes, "Patients undergoing cancer care seek reassurance and support from multiple sources. Complementary and alternative therapies may help patients feel that they are participating in their own care to a greater extent.
"The typical doctor-patient encounter often leaves no room or time for a discussion of alternative and complementary therapies. In addition, many patients do not want to discuss issues of spirituality with their doctors. On the other hand, it is important that patients tell their doctors what herbs or other medications they are taking to prevent interactions between cancer therapies and their complementary therapies," says Griggs, medical director of the Wilmot Comprehensive Breast Cancer Program.
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