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July 2001
Vol. 4, No. 7, p 18.
news in brief

On cancer alternatives

Alternative or complementary therapy is described as health-related behavior patterns or medicines used with the intention of curing or relieving an illness, without valid scientific proof of efficacy.

Alternative treatments are quickly becoming more widespread as a means of combating disease and maintaining a positive outlook. The treatments include herbal therapy, homeopathy, nutrition (special drinks, vitamins, etc.), relaxation training, and others.

An increasing number of doctors are using these therapies for cancer treatment alongside conventional therapy. Studies show that at least 50% of cancer patients use alternative methods at some point during the course of their illness.

A group of researchers from Austria and Germany set out to obtain a psychological perspective behind the use of these somewhat controversial medications (Support. Care Cancer 2001, 9, 267– 274). They obtained questionnaire information from 117 breast cancer patients, some of whom used alternative treatment as a supplement to conventional therapy (“users”), and some of whom received only conventional therapy (“nonusers”).The inquiries dealt with topics such as coping styles, causal attribution of the disease, and quality of life.

The findings showed that users often havean “active, problem-oriented coping” style. In other words, they wish to maintain a strong personal element of control in the therapeutic process. Thus, these therapies seem to fill important psychological needs. However, a subgroup of patients, those who use more than three different types of alternative treatments, tend to be overly centered on their illness, which causes a high degree of emotional stress compared with low-end users and nonusers.

In addition, many users were motivated bya strong sense of spirituality and a tendency to search for meaning.

On the question of overall quality of life, the researchers found no major difference between users and nonusers. They point out, however, that some subtle differences in well-being may not have been broached in the somewhat “generic” quality-of-life questionnaires that were given.

Another important difference between groups was the nonusers’ indication of a more complete confidence in their physicians. The user group tended to view the conventional treatments as not exhaustive.

The scientists think that an oncologist’s knowledge of the possible motives for using alternative medicines will allow more open conversation with patients. This can add confidence to the doctor–patient relationship and protect patients against using potentially harmful preparations or procedures, which could interfere with treatments prescribed by a physician.

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