Complementary, alternative medicine debate

28 May 2008 by under News, Research/Treatment

In the ongoing quest for a cure for mesothelioma and other life-threatening illnesses, the debate over the validity and effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) continues to stir up strong emotions.

Complementary medicine is used along with standard medicine, while alternative medicine is used in place of standard treatments.

Complementary and alternative medicine may include dietary supplements, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, acupuncture, massage therapy, magnet therapy, spiritual healing, and meditation.

Not long ago, I shared Charlene Kaforey’s good news, when she discovered her mesothelioma mass had diminished by half after completing a first round of cancer vaccines, considered an alternative treatment.

Recent news has included reports of research ranging from the effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines in combination with chemotherapy, to the use of Chinese mushrooms in homeopathic treatment, to a study indicating traditional chemotherapy might enhance the effectiveness of cancer vaccines, which are currently in clinical trials.

The problem, according to complementary medicine (CM) professor Edzard Ernst, in an editorial published recently in BMJ Clinical Evidence, is that “one side of the debate argues that there is no scientific evidence that can support CM, while the other side believes scientific evidence cannot be applied to CM.”

The danger, he says, is that waiting for absolute evidence might prevent someone from trying a therapy that could be beneficial, but siding with the idea that CAM simply cannot be proven may lead a patient into treatment that could cause more harm than good.

The National Cancer Institute’s Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM), which coordinates the Institute’s research program in CAM, has established a goal of evaluating data from CAM practitioners with the same rigorous scientific methods employed in evaluating treatment responses with conventional medicine.

Major categories of CAM therapies, as determined by OCCAM, include alternative medical systems (built upon complete systems of theory and practice, like traditional Chinese medicine or homeopathy), energy and electromagnetic based therapies, exercise therapies (like yoga), manipulative and body-based methods, mind-body interventions (like hypnotherapy), nutritional therapeutics, pharmacological and biologic treatments (like vaccines), and spiritual therapies (healing, prayer).

OCCAM is developing the NCI Best Case Series (BCS) program based on its evaluations of CAM therapies, in which it provides an independent review of medical records and medical imaging from patients treated with unconventional cancer therapies.

But whether or not alternative and complementary medicine can be proven effective, people will still seek it out, says Professor Ernst. The “almost insatiable hunger of patients” for CM has driven its importance, he says, despite criticisms, praise or skepticism from the medical community, scientists or politicians, and in spite of the fact that more often than not health insurance does not cover the treatments.

Obviously, this topic – and its accompanying debate – needs much more examination. I will be exploring it more in the future. Do you have an experience with complementary or alternative medicine? Share it with us!

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