Cancer Patients Turning to Complementary Therapies

Surgery. Radiation. Chemotherapy.

They are the three pillars of modern cancer treatment. And with every passing year, doctors add to this arsenal of proven therapies.

However, a steady and significant number of patients are adding alternative treatments into their care -- not to replace, but to complement conventional therapies.

In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), currently estimates that more than 60 percent of cancer patients are using complementary and alternative therapies -- not as a substitute for conventional medicine, but as a means to stay as healthy as possible during treatment.

Treat the Patient, Not the Tumor

So what's the appeal? To many, alternative and complementary therapies for cancer represent a strategy in which doctors treat a patient as a whole, not just cancer as a disease.

One of the most popular choices in complementary medicine is acupuncture -- a modality that proponents say provides benefits for a host of ills.

"From organ to organ, acupuncture is good for treating headaches and chronic pain, many things having to do with gynecology, including menopause," said Dr. Christiane Northrup, a women's health expert and author of "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom" on Thursday's "Good Morning America."

Northrup, a longtime proponent of complementary therapies, said she uses the therapies in conjunction with conventional techniques.

"Many of my patients who have used acupuncture during chemo have not lost their hair or their energy. So it is the perfect complement for chemotherapy."

Indeed, the NIH noted in its Consensus Statement on Acupuncture that various studies have suggested -- albeit inconclusively -- the usefulness of acupuncture in treating adult postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting. Even for those without cancer, some benefits of acupuncture have been seen in the treatment of addiction, stroke rehabilitation and chronic pain therapy.

Other complementary approaches that many look toward include meditation and yoga. Yoga is normally viewed as a form of exercise, but Northrup said yoga, which she calls "the original healing system," may have benefits beyond flexibility and muscle tone.

"Yoga balances the endocrine system, which include hormones, thyroids, and the adrenals," she said. "It also increases joint mobility which is of vital importance as we age. It can be used to treat arthritis, depression, chronic pain, even asthma."

Northrup added that even massage therapy, which many see simply as a weekend indulgence, may have benefits for cancer patients. She said she believes it can strengthen the immune system and has other health benefits.

But more research may be needed before the treatments are accepted completely by the medical community.

ABC News medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson said on "Good Morning America" on Thursday that further study may be needed in order to fully assess the benefits -- and possible risks -- of complementary techniques.

"My mantra is anything we do to or for the patient should do more good than harm, and anything we do should be carefully studied first," Dr. Tim said. "I feel very strongly that the same standard applies to what we call traditional medicine."

He added that just as certain procedures in conventional medicine, such as stents for blocked blood vessels, warrant further study, doctors must also scrutinize alternative techniques.

"Some of these invasive procedures of traditional medicine have not been studied sufficiently, just as some aspects of what we think of as alternative medicine have not been studied definitively," he said.

Conventional Medicine Making Room

Still, the past decade has seen a steadily growing acceptance by much of the medical community of complementary approaches to care.

According to a 1997 NIH report, acupuncture is being "widely" practiced -- by thousands of physicians, dentists, acupuncturists and other practitioners -- for various health conditions.

And consumers are taking advantage of the offerings. The 2002 National Health Interview Survey estimates that more than 8 million Americans have used them to treat various ailments such as chronic pain, menopause symptoms and infertility.

The support and demand for acupuncture and other complementary therapies is such that some insurance plans have even begun to cover certain approaches. And major medical institutions, including Duke University and Beth Israel Medical Center, have set up centers to study these nonconventional options.

Ultimately, however, the actual incorporation of these techniques into routine medical care could be hindered by the current structure of the medical system.

"Under our present system, there is enormous pressure on doctors to see as many patients as possible," Dr. Tim said. "So our present discourages a holistic approach. We would need some major changes in our health care system if we want to see more integrative medical care given."

Not a Cure-All

And even proponents of complementary techniques urge patients to be wary of those who promise much, but deliver little.

"I would be wary of any practitioner of complementary medicine who makes overly broad claims in any of these areas," Northrup said. "If someone says I'll do cranio-therapy and it will cure everything, you should be wary."