Complementary Cancer Therapies: Helpful or Hurtful?

pill_sackEvery year, consumers spend an estimated $40 billion on complementary and alternative medicine treatments and products, with hopes of miraculous cures, often unsupported by research or by science. Some consumers affected by life-threatening illnesses, including cancer, may approach the topic of supplements or alternative therapies as an added bonus without considering the side-effects or the interactions with their prescribed treatments. Complementary therapies can be very helpful in minimizing side-effects of traditional treatments and maximizing treatment results; but they should be considered and used carefully.

wesaAt this year’s New York “Knowledge is Hope” conference, presented by the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, Kathleen Wesa, MD of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, focused on complementary therapies used in conjunction with mainstream treatments for cancer patients. We listened to Dr. Wesa’s talk once before, at our 2009 Symposium, and have jotted down a few interesting points from her talk.

Cancer patients, in particular, should know that using complementary therapies  could interfere with, and in certain cases even destroy, the benefits of traditional treatment. Antioxidants such as Vitamin C, widely available in supplement form and aggressively marketed as “cancer fighters”, can actually prevent patients from fully benefiting from chemotherapy. In mesothelioma specifically, the one FDA-approved chemotherapy, Alimta, operates as an anti-folate. Overuse of the common “daily supplement,” folic acid, can actually block Alimta’s therapeutic benefit. This is a risk no mesothelioma patient should undertake blindly.

On the other hand, other complementary therapies used in conjunction with mainstream treatments have been found to be helpful. For example, for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, a study from the University of Rochester in New York has shown the effectiveness of ginger in relieving nausea.

Adding an exercise routine and paying close attention to nutrition have both been shown to greatly benefit cancer patients. The World Cancer Research Fund International recommends daily exercise in excess of 30 minutes and a diet prevalent in foods of plant origin, limiting sugary foods and drinks. Meditation, yoga, tai-chi and other “alternative” types of mind-body practices used by cancer patients also show benefits against pain, anxiety and insomnia.

The bottom line for mesothelioma patients: before shelling out money for the latest alternative or complementary “cure,” investigate carefully and consult with your physician or other medical expert. Dr. Wesa’s video presentation from our Symposium can be viewed here.