Complementary Therapies and Cancer: Study First of Its Kind

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Green tea, Tai Chi and vitamin supplements. While the use of complementary therapies such as these has exploded in recent decades, our understanding of them has not kept pace.

Close to 30 per cent of healthy Canadians use complementary therapies, according to a 1997 Angus Reid survey. Among people with cancer, the percentage is likely higher. But, why do people with cancer turn to complementary therapies? How many people are trying them? Who are they? And importantly, do they think the therapies are making a difference? With funding from the Canadian Cancer Society, University of Saskatchewan researcher Dr. Anne Leis is trying to find out. Along with a team of researchers from across the country, Dr. Leis has been studying the issue since 1999. The results of the study will be available later this year.

“People with cancer turn to complementary therapies because they want to do everything they can to get better or at least to improve their quality of life,” says Dr. Leis. “At their best, these therapies complement the intelligent use of conventional approaches. But we know that sometimes, complementary therapy users can be taken advantage of. Sometimes they only have access to partial information and it can be very hard for them to know what to believe or disbelieve.”

Dr. Leis’ comprehensive study of complementary therapy use among cancer patients is the “first of its kind” in Canada. More than 2,000 people from six provinces – British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec – have participated. They were surveyed by phone 16 months on average after being diagnosed with cancer and again six months later.

“Smaller studies have looked at the use of complementary therapies in samples with only a few types of cancer and at only one point in time,” says Dr. Leis. “Our study looked at all types of cancer, and patients were contacted twice because we wanted to know if their complementary therapy utilization changed between the first and second interviews.”

“If patients had used complementary therapies, we asked when they started to use them. For example, was it after diagnosis, or after surgery? We also asked the reasons for their choice, and whether they felt complementary therapies helped with side effects, increased their energy, strengthened their immune system or relieved pain. In addition, we gathered data on whether people used complementary therapies to complement or replace conventional cancer treatment.”

One objective of the study is to build a profile of complementary therapy users – breaking down their use by patient age, gender, ethnicity, family characteristics, income and education on a province-by-province basis. It is also looking at the socio-demographics of the people who use complementary therapies versus those who don’t.

“We know from the literature, for example, that younger women who have cancer are more likely to use complementary therapies than older men,” says Dr. Leis. Also, people who used complementary therapies before being diagnosed with cancer are more likely to use them after the diagnosis.

A bewildering array of complementary therapies are available to the public. When Dr. Leis and her team embarked on the study, they included 101 of the more common therapies on their study list. After conversations with patients, they added another 19.

While Dr. Leis’ study is not addressing the complex question of whether complementary therapies actually work, it is asking patients to report if they think the therapies they used worked.

“Our results in this area may lead to other, more focused studies. For example, if we learn that a high number of cancer patients use massage therapy and most of them believe it is useful, researchers may want to do a trial to test how effective it is when used in conjunction with conventional therapies,” says Dr. Leis.

“This would be a welcome next step not only for people with cancer, but for health-care professionals as well.”

When the study is published later this year, it will give cancer patients and their physicians detailed information about what complementary therapies are being used and their perceived benefits. “Our preliminary findings show that cancer patients use complementary therapies to a greater extent than the general population. This certainly underscores the pressing need for more reliable, evidence-based information about complementary therapies and the importance for health care providers and cancer patients to be better informed” she says.

“It can be a danger to good health when we don’t know enough.”