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Unlocking the power of complementary and alternative medicine

Published February 26th, 2021

Our clients with cancer count on Private Health to present them with all treatment options both traditional and non-traditional. We take a comprehensive view of cancer treatments including established anti-cancer drugs and investigational therapies, but also “complementary and alternative medicine”, or CAM.

A Complementary Approach​

Traditional cancer therapies are often the core of an innovative treatment plan because there is documented evidence of anti-tumor activity, namely, shrinking tumors, delaying progression, or improving survival. Increasingly, CAM treatments are also being evaluated in clinical studies as investigational treatments. For many reasons, these studies rarely reach the high level of support required for drug approval, but they’re often helpful for guidance. We embrace CAM when there’s limited risk and a chance it can combat disease, improve outcomes, or reduce side effects. We use the same rigor to interrogate the medical literature and work with treating providers to thoroughly evaluate CAM therapies. We then fully inform patients about potentials risks and benefits before integrating into treatment plans.

Thinking Beyond Traditional Medicine​

You may have heard that a healthy diet and exercise can reduce your chance of developing cancer, but now we know that these interventions can help fight cancer. In a study of 992 patients, improved survival was noted in patients maintaining a healthy body weight, physical activity, and a diet including fruit, vegetables, and whole grains (1). A separate study showed that consuming tree nuts could also reduce the chance of recurrence and improve overall survival (2). It’s possible that these interventions impact the gut microbiome and, with it, immune response. Multiple clinical trials (mainly from Japan) suggest medical mushrooms and their derivatives can improve outcomes possibly by enhancing immune response (3). CAMs are also useful to minimize the side effects of treatment. Many patients experience weight loss, caused by lack of appetite or nausea. We work with nutritionists and incorporate CAM to help improve weight gain and quality of life, which could translate to better long-term outcomes (4).

Making Informed Decisions

As always, it is important to discuss CAM with your doctor and healthcare advisors because some therapies that seem promising may have downsides for a given situation. For example, medical marijuana and its derivatives could help address chemotherapy-induced pain, nausea, and loss of appetite (5). Some early studies suggest it could even improve response to anticancer therapy including chemotherapy (6). However, two recent studies examined the use of medical marijuana in patients receiving immunotherapy as part of their cancer treatment. Investigators found that medical marijuana could harm response, progression, and survival (7,8). A similar example involves vitamins and supplements for prostate cancer. For some time, it was believed that selenium, an antioxidant, and vitamin E were helpful for fighting the disease. Then, a clinical study revealed these supplements actually had the opposite effect, leading to increased incidence of cancer (9). These results were surprising for investigators and highlight the importance staying current on the latest data behind each CAM therapy.

Potential Pitfalls​

Stay skeptical of treatments touted as a cure all or a miracle drug. Some providers overpromote CAM therapies with little to no evidence – some of which can be harmful. Alkaline therapy is one example. While drinking alkaline water is harmless and the benefits are unclear, the chemical supplements that raise blood pH, such as cesium chloride, can be highly toxic (10). With careful review of available information, your doctors and healthcare advisors can help make sense of these therapies.

The Power of Knowledge​

Private Health helps patients make informed decisions by presenting a comprehensive view of available research and input from experts. With careful consideration, CAM can be a strong addition to an effective and empowering treatment plan.

This feature story is provided solely for discussion and education purposes only. Discuss any treatment options with your doctor.