Researchers Evaluate Alternative Cancer Care

From The Boston Globe

Researches issued a broad review of alternative medical treatments for cancer patients Tuesday, separating those that can relieve suffering from those that can cause harm.

Vitamin E, soy and acupuncture can help, the Harvard study reports. Highly restrictive diets, St. John's wort and big doses of injected vitamins can do damage.

The checklist marks the first attempt by a mainstream medical school to provide a detailed assessment of the expanding roster of alternative therapies, which have grown into a $27 billion-a-year business nationwide.

Researches at Harvard's Osher Institute, founded to investigate alternative medicine, compiled the study by reviewing more than 400 published research papers on approaches such as shark cartilage and mind-body therapies. They discovered no magic bullets. Even the most promising alternative approaches, they report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, do not fight cancer directly but instead relieve the symptoms of the disease and the side effects of treatment.

Studies have shown that up to 91 percent of cancer patients use some form of alternative medicine. But they often never mention it to their doctors.

"The era of don't tell and don't ask is over," said Dr. David Eisenberg, director of the Osher Institute and one of the study's lead authors.

The Harvard researchers restricted their cancer-therapy study to six categories: diet changes, acupuncture, massage, exercise, mind-body interventions and nutritional supplements.

In some cases possible side effects overshadowed any potential benefits. The researchers, for instance, say St. John's wort has been found to dilute the effectiveness of conventional treatments, including chemotherapy.

Acupuncture was among the therapies receiving the most favorable review. It was found both safe and effective in controlling nausea and vomiting and helpful in quieting persistent pain.

While the Harvard study is broad, it is not intended to end the discussion. In some cases, treatment landed square in a gray zone. For instance, the researchers found that while shark cartilage appears to do no damage to most patients, more evidence is needed that it really works before the scientists would feel confident in recommending it.