Taking an alternative approach

by Team Onco

A meta-analysis of surveys has shown that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has grown popular over the past decade. While ‘complementary’ refers to medicines that support and improve conventional cancer treatment, ‘alternative’ refers to procedures that replace them. Complementary care for cancer aims to reduce the side-effects of medical treatment modalities, enhances emotional and physical response to treatment, and improves the recovery rate from cancer.  

The term ‘integrative oncology’ is gaining popularity as interventions like acupuncture, yoga, mindfulness, herbs and dietary supplements, chiropractic, and relaxation and hypnosis are being adopted increasingly supported by a traditional multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment that includes medical oncology, surgical oncology, radiation, genetics, and plastic surgery. 

However, it may be interesting to note that integrative therapy has faced considerable opposition from key stakeholders of cancer care like patients, administrators, and health policymakers. 

From a general perspective, eastern medicine as an alternative is considered more natural while Western medicine is built around technology, produced in sophisticated laboratories. That is not entirely wrong. Many of the advancements in allopathic medicine are a result of innovations in laboratories that are scientifically tested. Alternative therapies only fall short because experiments and observations do not validate them. Not everything that oncologists practice is laser-focused on pharmaceutical drugs and medical technologies. The importance of a balanced diet and exercise are also taken into high consideration as factors related to the health and wellness of an individual.

Here’s why non-conventional medicine bears the weight of scrutiny. In a recent meta-analysis, the researchers looked at all the accumulated randomized controlled trials on how acupuncture fared in treating patients with chronic pain. The study showed that not only did these patients fare better, but there were significant differences between those who chose this form of treatment and those that didn’t. This suggests that not all benefits are placebo effects. Another example is the intensively studied and proven effects of mindfulness and meditation in the treatment of anxiety and other mental health disorders.

While all this works, it is still in an arguable position to be entirely substituted with conventional cancer treatment. Subscribers to alternative medicine may argue that it is more natural or that these therapies have been used for decades, even centuries, most of them being part of cultural beliefs and customs. By this way of application, most therapies can be described as something that can be designed and tested by trials that either prove or disprove the efficacy of the therapy.

Many drugs we use today come from humble origins. Digitalis comes from foxglove quinine, penicillin from bread mold, aspirin from the bark of the willow tree. Conventional medicine has improved our ability to purify these substances and produce them in scalable numbers. It also acknowledges that many of these natural therapies hold value. 

However, science debunks complementary medicine options as ineffective. A study by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia thoroughly investigated 225 studies of homeopathic medicine, which is based on a rule of nature called the ‘Law of Similars’ which translates to ‘like cures like.’ In other words, the claims of homeopathy say that a small amount of a substance can cure a disease if this substance can cause symptoms of the disease in a healthy person. The study, however, concluded that no well-designed research found homeopathy to outperform placebo or function as well as conventionally approved therapies.

Similarly, those in favor of conventionally approved medicine have their prejudices even when they are confronted with clear evidence that advanced technology might not be providing the benefits they promised. Moreover, the medical community refuses to change their beliefs because of the multiple systems and protocols that currently exist. This is best explained by quoting Rosa and Jorge Lundberg, editors of the Journal of American Medical Association, “There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.”




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