70% breast cancer patients use alternative medicine

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July 24, 2007  
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CM NEWS – Younger women with higher anxiety level about cancer are more likely to try complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), a study says. Findings say about 70% of breast cancer patients or survivors choose CAM and the most popular CAM is herbs.

The study was conducted by a group of researchers in Chicago and published recently in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Recent data suggest an increase in rates of CAM use among the general population and among patients with chronic medical illnesses. This study examined the use of CAM in a sample of patients with breast cancer. Additional objectives were to measure associations between psychosocial and medical factors and CAM use both related and unrelated to a breast cancer diagnosis.

115 breast cancer survivors at least one year beyond active medical treatment were recruited during routine clinic visits. Survey data collected via structured telephone interview focused on CAM use, motivations for use, perceived risk of cancer recurrence, and breast cancer–specific and general measures of anxiety.

Result highlights:

  • 69% of the women participated in the study indicated that they currently use at least one type of CAM activity.
  • Of CAM users, 73% reported initiating or changing CAM activity specifically because of their cancer diagnosis.
  • A sizeable minority (27%) of CAM users in this sample do so for reasons unrelated to their cancer.
  • Patients engaging in CAM for cancer-related reasons were younger and had been diagnosed with cancer at a younger age.
  • Although overall anxiety scores in this sample were not significantly elevated, higher trait anxiety was associated with CAM use related to one’s cancer diagnosis.

“The study results add to a growing body of research that suggests CAM use is highly prevalent among women with a history of breast cancer,” the researchers wrote.

The most common types of CAM activities included:

  • herbs (39%)
  • vitamins or supplements (32%)
  • body work (24%)

Age seems to have an influence on whether the patients seek CAM or not. The results show that younger women were more likely to report:

  • current vitamin or supplement use because of cancer
  • any use of herbs or medicinal herb teas use of herbs and herbal teas because of cancer
  • participate in body work and body work because of cancer
  • any diet change and diet change related to cancer

In other aspects, patients go through radiation treatment were more likely to use herbs. Patients who are on tamoxifen treatment used less vitamins and herbs.

The literature suggests a complex relationship between CAM use and anxiety among patients with breast cancer and survivors, and findings from the current study bear this out. Overall, anxiety levels were not significantly different from those of nonclinical reference groups. These finding are consistent with reports concluding that patients with cancer are no more anxious than the general population.Interestingly, the study participants who were least anxious about breast cancer and its recurrence were those who use CAM without associating it with their breast cancer.

The result that a great majority of breast cancer patients seek CAM have important implications for health care workers, the researchers wrote. For instance, medical providers who work with patients with breast cancer should be aware of the high proportion who use CAM approaches.

Given the possible counterindications of some CAM activities for use with conventional medical treatments, provider assessment of patient use is essential. Furthermore, patients may benefit from receipt of evidence-based information regarding CAM use and assistance in informed decision-making regarding use of CAM approaches (note by editor: hey, this is exactly why this website exists! :D).

[Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine – 13(5):555]