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Alternative Medicine for Cancer

By Bruce A. Chabner, MD, Harvard Medical School;Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center ; Elizabeth Chabner Thompson, MD, MPH, New York Group for Plastic Surgery

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Some people turn to alternative medicine, including certain medicinal herbs (see Overview of Medicinal Herbs and Nutraceuticals), to treat their cancer, instead of or in addition to standard treatment. However, most types of alternative medicine have not been subjected to careful scientific studies. Thus, very little is known about the effectiveness of alternative medicine in treating cancer.

Although benefits of alternative medicine for cancer have not been scientifically proven, there is significant potential for harm because

  • The alternative medicine may be toxic.

  • The alternative medicine may interact with standard treatment, such as chemotherapy or medicine that people take for other disorders, thus reducing its effectiveness.

  • The alternative medicine may be costly, reducing the person’s ability to afford standard treatment.

  • If alternative medicine is used instead of standard treatment, the person will not obtain the proven benefits of standard treatment.

People using alternative medicine should inform their doctor. Hiding the use of alternative medicine could be harmful.

* This is the Consumer Version. *