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Wednesday, 15 September, 1999, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Complementary cancer care booms
testing
Doctors want more research to establish benefits
More cancer patients are turning to alternative medicine as they become disillusioned with conventional therapies, even though there is little more than anecdotal evidence to support its use, specialists have heard.

European Cancer Conference
Cancer specialists from across the continent were debating the issue at the European Cancer Conference in Vienna on Monday.

They called for more controlled trials - the gold standard of medical research - into complementary medicine to establish exactly what uses it has.

However, objective studies may prove difficult because many people who turn to the therapies believe they work before they start on them.

Gathering evidence

Professor John Smyth, of the Western General Infirmary in Edinburgh, said the issue needed to be addressed in the open so doctors could reach a consensus on what the current situation was.

Alternative Health
"The point is that complementary medicine is not just for cranks - it is used by many reasonable and intelligent people," he said.

"But the medical profession is not sure of its ground. Controlled clinical trials do not seem to have produced more than merely anecdotal evidence. They may even be inapplicable to complementary medicine.

"The problem is that most people who use complementary medicine already believe in it. We need an objective, robust answer for non-believers."

The only way to get this information was to study not only different treatments but different ways of using them too.

Another factor affecting the reliability of evidence was that many people taking complementary therapies also continued with their conventional treatment, making it difficult to work out which element has an impact on the disease.

Quality study

Dr Susie Wilkinson of the Cancer Research Fund gets around this by looking not at the effect on the disease itself, but on how the therapy makes the patient feel.

She is conducting a 504-patient strong study looking at how complementary therapies such as aromatherapy and massage improve quality of life when administered at the same time as conventional treatments.

She said these treatments did not offer an alternative to conventional treatments, but could help to improve a patient's experience of them.

"What we're trying to do is see if we give them complementary therapies, are we reducing their stress - are their anxieties getting better?" she said.

"We're concerned with whether it improves quality of life rather than its impact on the cancer itself."

So far, she said, results from her earlier studies suggested such therapies did have a positive effect on patients.

"It does reduce patients levels of anxiety - they have an impact on patients' well-being."

See also:

15 Sep 99 | Health
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