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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 01:37 GMT 02:37 UK
Cancer patients 'using unproven therapies'
Herbal medicines
Unconventional medicines may interfere with standard treatment
Cancer patients use alternative therapies without telling their doctor, potentially endangering their conventional treatment, say researchers.

Cancer: the facts
A study found that 40% of patients use unconventional medical treatments and only tell their doctor if they are specifically prompted to do so.

Of 196 US cancer patients asked, just 13 revealed the use of other medicines - defined as those not proven in the eyes of the medical profession - when asked about over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

But when faced with specific questions about the use of vitamins, herbal supplements or shark cartilage and therapies such as guided imagery music or meditation, a further 79 patients admitted they did.

Just because a product is marketed as 'natural', that doesn't make it completely safe

Dr James Metz, University of Pennsylvania
One patient said he was using as many as 17 supplements.

Vitamin A has been linked with causing stomach cancer and concerns have been raised about the interaction of St John's Wort with prescribed medicines.

Vitamins C and E are anti-oxidants which could interfere with or inhibit radiation treatment.

Dr James Metz, of the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, who carried out the research, said: "Patients should understand that just because a product is marketed as 'natural', that doesn't make it completely safe.

"Many of our chemotherapy drugs are from natural sources, but the ingredients are known to have certain toxic effects."


And he added: "Many patients don't realise they need to divulge the use of any self-prescribed substances to their physicians.

"It's crucial for physicians to ask more specific questions so they'll know exactly what their patients are taking in an effort to avoid the possibility of any harmful drug interactions."

In the study, which included patients with lung, breast, prostate and other forms of cancer, women were more likely to use unconventional therapies than men.

The results were reported to the American Society for Clinical Oncology in New Orleans.

Kate Law, head of clinical programmes at the Cancer Research Campaign, said she was surprised by the extent of complementary medicine use by patients.

"People have every right to look for other ways of dealing with their cancer. But, as a physician, I would want to know whether it was interacting with current treatment, particularly high dose treatments which we know can trigger more cancers," she said.

She called for a similar study in the UK to establish the extent of alternative therapy use among British patients.

Doctors should ask, and patients should reveal, non-prescription therapy use, she said.

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