Being diagnosed with cancer is often likened to a death sentence, planting a sense of hopelessness among patients who sometimes turn to alternative medicine, hoping that it will boost their chances to lick the disease.
Dr. Foo Kian Fong, an oncologist from the Parkway Cancer Centre in Singapore, defined alternative and complementary medicine as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not considered to be part of conventional medicine.”
“Using this is a gamble. Doctors can tell you, for example, chemotherapy can improve your health by 20 percent, something like that. But, with alternative medicine they cannot say because there are no [sufficient]studies to back most of them,” Foo said.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world. Recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that there were 14 million new cases worldwide in 2012, which may rise to 22 million in the next two decades.
Risk factors for cancer vary from one’s age and genetic makeup to lifestyle choices.
For most patients, cancer treatment is both expensive and deteriorative because of the effect of radiation to the body. Foo said patients opt for alternative medicine and practices to treat cancer, or any disease, when conventional treatment has failed and to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy to their body.
Some popular examples aside from different Chinese herbal medicines, are acupuncture and products that promote the positive effects of antioxidants.
However, despite promises of better health, several of these medicines can also cause complications than cure.
Foo warned that “partnering” alternative with conventional medicine may be a bad combination for patients. He compared the effects of non-conventional medication to two sides of a coin — they are unexpected. He shared that he has had patients who were either miraculously healed over a year, or have passed away after choosing alternative medicine over chemotherapy.
“Some traditional Chinese medicines have been found to increase patients’ cancer immunity, like Ling Zhi. But studies have also shown that Ling Zhi can cause liver inflammation,” Foo said. “[Around] 25% of patients who use alternative medicines get inflamed livers and kidney failures because of complications with conventional medicines.”
Ling Zhi is a medicinal mushroom popular in China.
“In Singapore, 50 percent of [cancer]patients don’t want to tell their doctors that they’re using alternative medicines. That’s why it causes complications during chemotherapy… What I’m trying to say is it’s okay to use them, just tell your doctor so that they will keep watch on your health progress. Also, patients should be knowledgeable of the side effects and counter-interactions,” Foo said.
He advised cancer patients not to take antioxidants during chemotherapy and radiation treatment because these cannot eradicate the free radicals brought upon by cancer.
In the Philippines, traditional and alternative medicines have been included in the national health care system under Republic Act No. 8432 or the “Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) of 1997.” This entails the proper distribution and use of non-conventional medication and practices in the country.
Although welcomed in the Philippines, alternative drugs are seen with a wary eye and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had repeatedly released advisories against the distribution of unregistered alternative drugs “to assure the public that only safe, efficacious, and quality drugs are in the market.”
Foo advised cancer patients to be cautious in using alternative medicine.
“Not everything is safe, and not everything has no side effects. Patients must always make sure that these are FDA-approved drugs and to tell their doctors before using them [to ensure their safety],” he said.