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Study Offers Portrait of Complementary Therapy Use Among Survivors

Article date: August 6, 2008

A paper by American Cancer Society researchers published this week in Cancer, one of the Society's peer-reviewed journals, offers one of the largest and most detailed portraits of complementary and alternative therapy use among cancer survivors in the United States.

Complementary therapy refers to treatments, techniques, or methods that are used along with standard or mainstream medicine. Some complementary therapies may help relieve certain symptoms of cancer or its treatment. An alternative therapy refers to an unproven therapy that is used instead of conventional medicine. Some alternative therapies are bogus, and some have dangerous or even life-threatening side effects. Still others scientists don't know enough about.

To date, information on just how many patients actually use complementary and alternative methods and on which patient characteristics influence that use has been limited.

Popular Therapies

ACS researchers surveyed more than more than 4,000 survivors who were participants in the American Cancer Society's Study of Cancer Survivors-I (SCS-I) and found that more than half used some type of alternative or complementary therapy.

"Many complementary methods are extremely popular among cancer survivors, who are spending a lot of their time, money, and attention on them," said Ted Gansler, MD, Director of Medical Content at the American Cancer Society and co-author of the study. "For this reason, it's important to determine which are helpful, not only for shrinking tumors and extending survival, but also for relieving symptoms and improving quality-of-life."

The researchers looked at 19 different complementary methods -- from acupuncture to Tai Chi. Survivors listed the following practices most frequently: prayer/spiritual practice (61.4%), relaxation (44.3%), faith/spiritual healing (42.4%), nutritional supplements/vitamins (40.1%), meditation (15%), religious counseling (11.3%), massage (11.2%), and support groups (9.7%). Hypnosis (0.4%), biofeedback (1.0%), and acupuncture/acupressure (1.2%) were among the least cited.

A Detailed Picture

Of the group, younger, more affluent, and more educated cancer survivors were more likely to use the therapies. Women were more likely than men to use energy techniques such as Tai Chi and yoga (10.1 vs. 1.9%) and manipulative body practices such as massage (16.9 vs. 3.9%), though both men and women were only somewhat less likely to use non-spiritual mind-body methods such as aromatherapy, hypnosis, and meditation (58.6% vs. 42.8%).

Breast and ovarian cancer survivors were more likely to use alternative and complementary therapies than survivors of other cancer types, even when the researchers controlled for factors such as gender, stage of disease, and other characteristics. More research is needed into why these groups are more likely to embrace the methods.

This is the first of several reports that will tap American Cancer Society's Study of Cancer Survivors-I (SCS-I) data to further investigate the topic of complementary and alternative medicine use among cancer survivors.

"We need to learn more about why some people use certain complementary methods, why other don't, what benefits users expect, and how effective various complementary methods are in improving survivors' length and quality of life," said Gansler.

For more information on this topic and to learn more about some of the therapies mentioned in this story, see the American Cancer Society's guide to Complementary and Alternative Therapies.


Citation: "A Population-based Study of Prevalence of Complementary Methods Use by Cancer Survivors: A Report From the American Cancer Society's Studies of Cancer Survivors." Published online August 4, 2008 in Cancer. First author: Ted Gansler, MD, MBA. American Cancer Society.


Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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