Complementary therapies 'put cancer patients at risk'

By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

The Independent (UK)

19 March 2004

Breast cancer sufferers using complementary therapies are at risk because the treatments could interact with conventional medicines with potentially dangerous results, doctors warned yesterday.

More than half of women with breast cancer use complementary therapies such as vitamin pills and herbal formulas but few have been evaluated and some may be dangerous, specialists said.

Most women used the therapies to complement conventional treatment but some, such as shark cartilage and the Italian Di Bella therapy, were promoted as cures for cancer which were invariably bogus, they said.

Surveys show that between 50 and 70 per cent of breast cancer patients in England use complementary therapies. The findings are due to be presented to the European Breast Cancer conference in Hamburg today by Gillian Bendelow, reader in medical sociology at the University of Sussex.

Ms Bendelow said: "It is simply not realistic any more for doctors to think that they can ignore complementary and alternative medicines or that they can tell their patients not to use them. Patients appear to be turning to these therapies in increasing numbers and doctors need to take account of [them] when considering treatment options. Half of general practices in England now offer patients some access to complementary or alternative medicines."

Women who chose to use the therapies were in general younger, better educated and better off than those who did not. They used them to give them more control and a greater role in their care, to improve their quality of life and to ensure no stone was left unturned in the search for a cure.

Eric Winer, associate professor of medicine at Harvard University, told the conference that more studies of complementary therapies in cancer were needed. "Issues of safety are critical but in many cases extensive safety evaluation has not been undertaken. Relatively few therapies have been tested in conjunction with standard treatments and this is a serious problem," he said.

Dr Winer cited the example of St John's wort, a widely used herbal treatment for depression, which has been shown to interact with a range of conventional medicines.

Few studies had demonstrated unequivocal benefits for the therapies and some suggested women who used them were more likely to have physical and/or psychological symptoms, Dr Winer said.

Edzard Ernst, Britain's only professor of complementary medicine, at the Peninsula Medical School, Plymouth, told the conference that complementary therapies could ease symptoms but there was little evidence they could prevent or treat breast cancer.

"If an effective therapy such as a herbal medicine emerged it would immediately be taken up by mainstream oncology as happened with Taxol [for ovarian and advanced breast cancer] which came from the yew tree. It follows, almost automatically, that all existing alternative 'cancer cures' are bogus."

Professor Ernst said complementary therapies such as massage, aromatherapy, reflexology and relaxation could improve the quality of life of cancer patients and some, such as acupuncture for the nausea caused by chemotherapy, could combat its ill effects.

But others, marketed as cures, were dangerous. Examples included Essiac (a Canadian herbal mixture), Hoxley formula (also a herbal mixture), mistletoe, laetrile (derived from the seeds of bitter almonds and apricots) and shark cartilage.

"Several of these alleged cures are associated with significant risks, including the adverse effects of herbal remedies, contamination or adulteration, interaction with prescribed drugs and patients choosing an ineffective complementary therapy instead of life-saving conventional treatment," Professor Ernst said.


Di Bella therapy

Professor Luigi Di Bella claims his therapy raises the capacity of cells to defend themselves from cancer and limits the uncontrolled growth of tumour cells. It is based on a combination of somatostatin, vitamins, retinoids, melatonin, and bromocriptine.

Shark cartilage

Some studies have shown that shark cartilage cuts blood flow to tumours, limiting tumour growth.


A generic name for a herbal tea that is one of the most popular alternative remedies for cancer. Proponents believe it improves the body's ability to fight cancer and that it reduces the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Mistletoe therapy

The European species of mistletoe (above) used in cancer treatment goes under the trade name of Iscador, which apparently stimulates the immune system. Two active ingredients are lectins and viscotoxins that can kill cancer cells and stop them replicating.


The trade name for laevo-mandelonitrile-beta-glucuronoside, this compound is related to amygdalin, a substance found in the pits of apricots.


ANH comment

This article manages to say:

a) there are insufficient studies considering interactions between complementary medicines and conventional medicines

b) complementary therapies interact negatively with conventional therapies, and because conventional therapies (e.g. radiotherapy, chemotherapy, surgery) are assumed to be the mainline of defence against cancer, use of complementary therapies should be put on hold until more data are available

c) the UK's only professor of complementary therapy, Professor Edzard Ernst (widely regarded by practicing complementary therapists as an opponent) says that you're better off sticking to conventional therapies, without considering any of the risks of conventional therapies.

Do we need to say any more?

Is this part of an ongoing assault against complementary therapies, from which thousands have experienced life saving treatment, after having been written off as 'terminal' by the conventional cancer treatment establishment?

This sort of approach is in great danger of misrepresenting the overall risk/benefit equation of health care. It risks throwing 'the baby out with the bath water' - losing very real solutions to the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

One of the real limitations with conventional research is the excessive reliance on single factorial studies - for example, where the effects of one particular anti-cancer agent or therapy is investigated in isolation. It is of course a perfectly useful approach (open to great misinterpretation and misrepresentation) if you wish to have a greater chance of yielding negative results from treatments.

There is not one complementary practitioner working in the field of cancer that we are aware of that uses a unilateral approach to cancer treatment. Complementary therapists generally use a wide range of treatments together, often across several different modalities - and it seems to be this integrated approach that is responsible for the results that are causing such a large number of people to turn to complementary therapies.

But remember this - any complementary practitioner who shouts about his or her results from the roof tops will be jumped on by the authorities and accused of peddling medicines without a licence. This could come with nothing less than a jail sentence. And this is not a priviledge reserved for doctors.

Jason Vale, a former US arm wrestling champion is currently serving time for telling others about his 'miraculous' cure from recurring cancer after consuming apricot kernels (containing laetrile - or Vitamin B17). What the US FDA hated so much was that Jason Vale then made these kernels available commercially. Helping others is seemingly a cardinal sin worthy of a jail sentence.

In case you thought this didn't happen in Europe, we are dealing with a case of a food supplement distributor (from a UK manufacturer) who was arrested by the French government for selling none other than 500 mg Vitamin C tablets. The case will be heard in a Brussels court in April - and we will be issuing a release about this case closer to the court hearing.

Perhaps a positive outcome of attacks such as this Independent article is that solidarity among those of us working to defend complementary medicine is increased.

It also emphasises the huge importance of the events going on with regard to EU legislation and Codex Alimentarius.

support us in our legal challenge against the EU Food Supplements Directive, in removing food supplements from the jurisdiction of EU medicinal law, in shaping positively - or blocking - the Health Claims Regulations, in protecting the availability of all safe and effective herbs and nutrients, and working to influence Codex, the United Nation's international guidelines relating to food supplements.

The time to act is NOW!