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Alternative Therapies Gain Favor for Kids' Cancers

Parents are adding herbs, spiritual therapy and more to supplement conventional treatment, study finds

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 5, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Three out of four children with cancer are going beyond their doctor-ordered conventional treatment and using such alternative therapies as herbs, spiritual healing and the like, says a new study.

"We were surprised the number was this high, but we were also glad that no one was substituting alternative for traditional therapies," says Marian L. Neuhouser, lead author of the study and senior staff scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Previous studies have shown that about 40 percent of adults use alternative therapies for a variety of reasons, but no studies in the United States had looked at the use of alternative medicine for children with cancer.

The study, published in a recent issue of Preventive Medicine, examined children who were cancer patients in western Washington state.

"The news here is that we should be paying attention to what our patients are doing," says Dr. Jeffrey M. Lipton, professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and chief of pediatric hematology, oncology and stem cell transplantation at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "Whether it's 75 percent or 25 percent, it's still fairly substantial," he notes.

The researchers conducted telephone interviews with the parents of 75 children who were 18 or younger. All had been told between February 1997 and December 1998 that their child had invasive cancer. Most of the parents said they had started alternative therapies after learning their child had cancer.

Herbs turned out to be the most popular alternative therapy, used by almost 35 percent of the parents interviewed. Twenty-one percent had consulted an alternative provider (a massage therapist, naturopathic physician or Native American healer, for example); more than 29 percent said they used vitamin supplements; 11 percent used mental or spiritual therapies, and one parent reported using magnets.

One of the most interesting findings: Most of the parents said they were satisfied with their conventional doctor, and about 90 percent said they had turned to alternative providers and mental therapies to cope with the symptoms of the cancer or the side effects of conventional treatment, not to supplant that treatment.

The few parents who were dissatisfied with their regular doctor, however, were nine times more likely to seek alternative therapies than parents who were satisfied, the survey showed.

Sixty to 90 percent of parents were satisfied with the alternative treatment as well, reporting that it had done their child some good.

Sometimes, however, alternative therapies can backfire, Lipton says.

"Every once in a while, you hear that one of these accepted herbal medicines turns out to be a lot more toxic than we anticipated, and we do have concerns about antioxidants in people who get radiation therapy," he says.

Radiation kills malignant cells by generating oxygen-free radicals. Although free radicals are generally considered to be "bad," in this case, they are performing a good service. Antioxidants, like vitamins C and E, may also reduce how well chemotherapy works.

For these reasons and others, it's critical to keep your regular doctor apprised of any other therapies you may be considering for your child, Lipton and Neuhouser both stress.

In the study, most parents did tell their regular doctors. In fact, one-quarter said their regular doctor had actually referred them to an alternative provider.

"Communication is a very important issue regardless of what type of alternative treatments are being used," says Neuhouser. "There are potential reactions, and sometimes physicians can be quite helpful in making referrals. In some states, services can be covered by health insurance if the physician makes a referral. That's a real reason to let the physician know."

There's another reason as well: You may have found something that works.

"You may be surprised, something may actually work," says Lipton. "Until we're curing 100 percent of kids 100 percent of the time with zero side effects, we'd be really foolish not to look at these things."

What To Do

If you're in the market for information, the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine have materials on a variety of cancer therapies.

And here's a great resource page on alternative medicine from the University of Pittsburgh.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jeffrey M. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City, and chief of pediatric hematology/oncology and stem cell transplantation, Schneider Children's Hospital, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Marian L. Neuhouser, Ph.D., R.D., senior staff scientist, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle; November 2001 Preventive Medicine
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