The research, the first population-based study of its kind to look at predictors, motivators and costs of different types of alternative medicine use in adults with cancer, was conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The findings were published in yesterday's issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Researcher Ruth E. Patterson and her colleagues at Fred Hutchinson's Public Health Sciences Division led the study, which was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute and funds from Fred Hutchinson.
"This is the first study to specifically inquire about patients' attitudes regarding the effectiveness of alternative treatments," Patterson says.
Patients were considered users of alternative medicine if they received care from an alternative provider within the past year or had used at least one alternative supplement or therapy.
Depending on the type of therapy, 83 percent to 97 percent of patients surveyed said they used alternative medicine for general health, and nearly all reported that use of these therapies improved their well-being.
A smaller number of those surveyed, between 8 percent and 56 percent, turned to alternative interventions to actually treat their cancer.
The most common form of alternative treatment was the use of dietary supplements, which were taken by 65 percent of the patients, many of whom used several such products simultaneously.
Cancer type also appeared to influence alternative therapy use: for example, those with breast cancer were significantly more likely to see alternative providers or take dietary supplements than were colon cancer patients.
"Since most therapies were used to enhance overall health and well-being, it seems unlikely that patients would substitute these therapies for conventional medicine," Patterson says.
But, she adds, "doctors should be wary of discounting alternative medicine, given that the majority of patients overwhelmingly feel it improves their quality of life."
The survey was based on telephone interviews with 356 adults who had been diagnosed with breast, prostate or colon cancer between February 1997 and December 1998. The group was divided equally among men and women, with equal representation among the three types of cancer.
One limitation to the study, Patterson notes, is that use of alternative medicine could be high in western Washington for a variety of reasons.
First, vitamin use is highest in the western United States compared to other areas of the nation. Also, health insurers in Washington are required by state law to provide coverage for licensed alternative providers.
"Regardless of incidence of alternative medicine use in Washington, other studies also indicate that alternative medicine use is common in patients with cancer," Patterson adds.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has more information.