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Older Cancer Patients Flock to Alternative Treatments

By Nick Tate   |   Wednesday, 26 Aug 2015

A significant number of older Americans with cancer are flocking to alternative treatments, new research shows.

According to a comprehensive review of medications taken by senior oncology patients, as many as 26 percent are using alternative or complementary therapies.

The study, published in the Journal of Geriatric Oncology, also indicates in many cases patients aren’t telling their doctors about the nonconventional medicines they may be taking, in part because mainstream physicians tend to take a dim view of such therapies.

That can cause problems because some alternative treatments contain active ingredients that can react chemically and biologically with other therapies. 

"Currently, few oncologists are aware of the alternative medicines their patients take," said Ginah Nightingale, an assistant professor with the Jefferson College of Pharmacy at Thomas Jefferson University. 

"Patients often fail to disclose the [alternative medicines] they take because they think they are safe, natural, nontoxic, and not relevant to their cancer care, because they think their doctor will disapprove, or because the doctor doesn't specifically ask."

The researchers said it’s critical for patients to detail their treatments to their doctors, and for physicians to be aware so many of their patients are using them. 

A number of alternative therapies can interfere with certain cancer treatments. For example, St. John's Wort can make some cancer therapy less effective, according to the National Institutes of Health. Others can interfere with anesthesia during surgery for cancer. 

"Numerous pills, or what we call polypharmacy in the field, can increase the risk for medication non-adherence, potential drug-drug interactions and increase the risk for drug-disease interactions in a population that has been reported to take several medications and have several medical conditions," said Dr. Nightingale.

"The use of [alternative medicines] in this subpopulation warrants substantial interest and concern on behalf of medical oncologists and allied health professionals because of the potential clinical implications …. Patients may be combining these agents while receiving concurrent systemic chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or surgical interventions which have the potential to compromise the safety and efficacy of treatment interventions." 

Alternative medications commonly used by seniors include natural remedies, probiotics, vitamins, and minerals, the researchers said.