How Do I Talk to My Doctor About Alternative and Complementary Methods?

Many people with cancer are afraid to discuss complementary and alternative methods with their doctors. It’s true that many doctors may not know about the uses, risks, and potential benefits of these unconventional treatments. This lack of knowledge can widen the gap between patient and doctor when it comes to using complementary methods along with regular cancer treatment. But this doesn’t have to stop you. You can help bridge the gap in a number of ways:

  • Look for information from respected sources that you can trust regarding the potential benefits and risks of the treatment you are thinking about.
  • When you share this information with your doctor, try to do it in a way that shows you know that your doctor wants what’s best for you. Let him or her know that you are thinking about a complementary treatment and that you want to make sure it won’t interfere with your regular medical treatment.
  • If you’re thinking of an alternative treatment, let the doctor know what you’re considering. Ask the doctor about any studies on this method, and what options you might still have if the alternative treatment doesn’t work.
  • Make a list of questions and bring it along with any other information you want to talk about. Ask your doctor to be a supportive partner as you learn more about other options and your treatment process.
  • Bring a friend or family member with you to the doctor’s office to support you. Your loved one can also help you talk with your doctor and relieve some of the stress of having to make decisions alone.
  • Listen to what the doctor has to say, and try to understand his or her point of view. If the treatment you’re thinking about will cause problems with your medical treatment, discuss safer choices together.
  • Don’t delay or skip regular treatment without warning. If you’re thinking about stopping or not taking mainstream treatment, please talk to your doctor about this. Even though you may be giving up the only proven treatment for your cancer, this is still your choice to make.
  • Be sure to ask your doctor if there are mainstream methods for treating the side effects or symptoms you’re having during and after your treatment. There are many supportive medical treatments that can make you feel better.
  • If you’re taking dietary supplements, make a complete list of what you’re taking and the amount of each. Many supplements can interact in harmful ways with other medicines, so talk with your doctor and pharmacist about your supplements and medicines. Report any changes in your supplement use to your health care team.
  • If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, ask about the risks and effects of complementary or alternative methods. Never give herbal medicines to children without talking to their doctors first.
  • Ask your doctor to help you identify possible fraud and fraudulent products. (See the list under “Avoiding fraud and questionable treatments” in the section “Can I safely use a complementary or alternative therapy?”)

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: March 31, 2015

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