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Men embracing alternative therapies

Male interest in complementary medicines while receiving conventional cancer treatment is growing, new research has found. By Linda Belardi.

Men with cancer are increasingly turning to complementary and alternative medicine –with one in two using therapies such as dietary supplements or herbs and botanicals to treat disease symptoms.

Yet despite widespread use, few oncologists or cancer nurses discussed this choice with their patients, Nadja Klafke, a psychology PhD student with the University of Adelaide, has found.

A survey of 400 men aged between 60 and 75, shows friends and family are a significant influence in their decision to take up these treatments.

While their satisfaction and trust in conventional cancer treatment remained strong, men were also looking to supplement their radiation or chemotherapy with other options.

The most popular therapies were dietary supplements (used by 36 per cent of men), prayer (26 per cent) and the use of herbs and botanicals, such as echinacea or ginkgo biloba (21 per cent). Relaxation and meditation was also commonly used.

Klafke said it was important to boost the awareness of oncology staff, especially as the growth of complementary medicine was likely to increase.

“The role and potential benefits of complementary medicines should be discussed during clinical consultations with cancer specialists for efficacy and safety reasons. It may also contribute to a closer doctor-patient relationship marked by more interaction, trustworthiness and holistic patient care,” she told Nursing Review.

While the use of complementary medicine has not been shown to increase survival rates, there is some data to suggest that, as a complement to conventional treatment, its use may reduce side effects and disease symptoms.

“For example, acupuncture may assist in pain relief and nausea, and relaxation and medication can reduce stress and anxiety in cancer patients,” she said.

For most therapies that are simultaneously used with conventional cancer treatment it is without any risk of adverse effects.”

However, cancer nurses should also be aware that some herbs or botanicals could react badly with prescribed medications and chemotherapy agents, she said.

Klafke denied the popularity of alternative therapies had contributed to a decline in the use of conventional cancer treatment.

“Of course there are exceptions when patients reject biomedical conventional cancer treatment but it would be a small minority. The majority of patients say they believe and trust in conventional cancer care and they like to use both conventional and complementary therapies at the same time.”

Despite advances in conventional medicine and improving rates of cancer survival, the popularity of complementary therapies has continued to grow since the 1990s.

“As long as conventional therapy cannot provide a cure or a definitive answer to what causes cancer, patients will continue to be interested in complementary therapies,” she said.

While the reasons for use remain under-investigated by researchers, Klafke’s study points to the significant role of family and friends in the decision-making process.

A follow-up interview study is under way to develop a better understanding of why patients turn to alternative therapies.

The study found no significant differences in usage according to type of cancer, medical treatment, or nationality.

However patients with metastatic cancer were 1.5 times more likely to use complementary therapies than non-metastatic cancer patients. Tertiary education and higher socioeconomic status were also associated with higher use.

The study, the first to gather data on men’s use of complementary therapies during cancer treatment in Australia, was recently published in the Annals of Oncology.

Number crunch
• 53 per cent of surveyed men said they use complementary and alternative medicines and a higher proportion (61.5 per cent) said they had used it in the past.

Four most popular complementary and alternative medicines:
• Dietary supplements (used by 36 per cent of surveyed men)
• Prayer (26 per cent)
• Herbs and botanicals (21 per cent)
• Relaxation and meditation (15 per cent)

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