Cancer and complementary medicine

In the news recently, there’s been a couple of articles about cancer patients using alternative or complementary medicines (such as herbal medicine – Western or Chinese, vitamin regimes, homeopathy, naturopathy and specialised diets) and sadly, not having a good outcome. I just wanted to add my thoughts on this.

First of all – it is ILLEGAL IN THE UK FOR ANY PRACTITIONER OF ANY KIND TO TELL YOU THEY CAN CURE CANCER. If anyone tells you they can do this (and that includes herbalists), run a mile and report them. No reputable practitioner should be doing this in the UK!

One of the reasons some of the cancer patients using alternative medicines had a poor outcome was because they refused conventional treatment such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery. That is of course their right. I don’t know the individual details of what alternative treatments they were using but what I do know is that I, and many other medical herbalists I know, see ourselves as complementary therapists rather than alternative therapists. What’s the difference?Complementary therapy is there to complement orthodox medicine, that is to say it works alongside chemo and radiotherapy and other drugs such as tamoxifen. Alternative therapy is an alternative – it’s instead of orthodox medicine.

Another reason for low survival rates was where patients were still using conventional methods, but the complementary treatments they were using were interacting with the conventional treatment, causing it to be less effective. This is a huge danger. And it is why medical herbalists in the UK who are members of NIMH (National Institute of Medical Herbalists) or CPP (College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy) are trained in orthodox drugs as part of their herbal medicine degree and how our herbs could potentially interact with drugs, including chemotherapy. It’s not complementary medicine if it’s hindering what the doctors are giving!

I see my role in working with cancer patients as supportive – to help with side effects so that the chemo is better tolerated for example, to help the body recover after surgery, to support the immune system, help with pain relief, emotional support, and to help optimise the effects of orthodox treatment. I never tell my patients not to take chemo, or whatever treatment they’ve been prescribed.

What I’m trying to say is – if you or someone you know are diagnosed with cancer and you want to try alternative treatments, check the credentials of whoever you choose to help you, and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions about what they can offer you. Wishing you all the very best.