From Farrah Fawcett to Suzanne Somers: Is Alternative Medicine Safe?

When traditional medicine fails, is it worthwhile to pursue potentially risky treatments in hopes of curing a chronic or even deadly disease?

A growing number of Americans are saying yes.

Actress Farrah Fawcett is lying in a Los Angeles hospital reportedly recovering from cancer treatments she received in Germany. Her anal cancer, back after a brief remission in 2007, has spread to her liver.

But it was reportedly the unconventional treatment she received, not the cancer, that landed her in the hospital this week.

Her cancer specialist Dr. Lawrence Piro said that she traveled to Germany for a "simple procedure" and a standard one, but that she also pursued experimental treatments while she was there.

One of those treatments, he said, resulted in abdominal bleeding and a hematoma. Despite the latest setback, he said, "she's continuing to fight the battle."

"She's doing well, continuing to fight and showing incredible resolve," he said.

An estimated 38 percent of Americans have used some sort of alternative therapy for a chronic ailment, some using simple treatments in the form of vitamin supplements, exercise, changes in attitude and diet.

Luanne Panessi, a nurse, is one of those Americans who decided to try alternative medicine.

"When I first started I was skeptical," Panessi said.

She was suffering from hepatitis B and wanted to avoid the harsh after-effects from routine hepatitis treatments.

"Instead of waiting for something to happen and getting treated with synthetic medications that have a litany of side effects, I decided to heal my body naturally," Panessi said.

The nurse believes the treatment is helping her.

"I have more mental clarity, I feel great and what better way to treat an illness than a way that makes you feel this good and gives you a sense of clarity," Panessi said.

Alternative Medicine: Effective or Risky?

Actress Suzanne Somers, suffering from breast cancer, has said she felt much the same way when she took her health into her own hands, forgoing traditional cancer-fighting methods and beating the disease.

"I take probably 60 vitamins a day," she said. "I take hormones, I take estrogen, progesterone. I take drops that cleanse my liver."

"We have to understand that people have tried something and it doesn't work. They are going to, instead of sitting and dying and going home with some morphine, or going into a hospice, they will try one last thing," said Gary Null, an expert on alternative and complementary medicine and nutrition.

But many who practice traditional medicine are skeptical.

"Alternative methods can be harmful in many ways," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, operator of Quackwatch.org. "They can deprive people of money. They can injure people's health. They can result in [a] lessening of public health measures that can result in people going in the wrong direction when they need something."

But for those who have enjoyed its benefits, alternative medicine feels like the right direction.

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