With the myriad of CAM therapies available, it is often difficult and overwhelming to determine which, if any, may be appropriate. Because of the potential for interaction between CAM therapies and conventional medical treatments, it is extremely important for a patient to consult with their oncologist and other attendant health care professionals about CAM therapies they currently use or are considering using. While information regarding interactions is limited, it is crucial that the information available be utilized. For example, some data suggest that certain CAM therapies may interfere with specific chemotherapy agents or cause dangerous side effects when used concurrently.
Another benefit of discussing CAM therapies with one’s conventional medical provider is that it promotes a health care team approach in which appropriate information may be shared for optimal treatment. In China, for example, a cancer patient often has an oncologist and an acupuncturist working together. This structure assists health care providers in developing comprehensive treatment plans.
As a patient interested in CAM therapies, several steps can taken to make informed decisions. First, research CAM therapies. Make sure that health claims are supported by scientific studies, recognizing that results in laboratory or animal studies often do not translate to the same benefits in humans. Also look for evidence that the CAM therapy is safe. An oncologist or other health care professional may be able to help interpret these scientific studies.
Most medical doctors have not received training in CAM and therefore do not offer CAM treatments. However, a physician or other health professionals may be able to recommend a CAM practitioner. Sometimes local hospitals, medical schools, or area clinics maintain a list of local CAM practitioners and may offer recommendations. It may also be helpful to contact a professional organization or regulatory agency regarding the type of CAM therapy in question.
When considering a prospective practitioner, it is important to understand his or her qualifications and the CAM therapy itself. To this end, the following questions may be helpful during an initial consultation:
- What are the training requirements and credentials for this type of CAM therapy?
- Does the treatment intend to promote wellness, manage symptoms and/or treat cancer?
- Have any scientific studies been published on this CAM therapy in peer-reviewed medical journals?
- Do patients with similar illnesses commonly use this CAM therapy? Can the practitioner provide references of patients for whom the treatments have proven successful?
- How does one know whether the treatment is working? What are indications of benefit?
- Can the CAM therapy be used concurrently with conventional medical treatments? Does it increase the efficacy of the conventional treatment? Are they any known contraindications?
- What are the potential side effects? How safe is the treatment?
- What does the treatment consist of? How long does a treatment session last? How often is it required?
- How much does treatment cost? Do insurance companies usually cover these costs?
- Is the practitioner willing to communicate with other health care providers, particularly conventional physicians and oncologists, regarding the CAM therapy?
Use care when choosing a CAM practitioner. Patients should be comfortable with any CAM therapy they choose to undergo and the practitioner they select. They should be equally at ease in discontinuing treatment if they choose to or in not using any CAM therapy at all. The ultimate decision about health care strategies lay in the hands of the person most affected: the patient.