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Questions to Ask About Complementary Therapies

Questions to Ask About Complementary Therapiesby Linda Wasmer Andrews

"Unconventional" therapies for cancer are fast becoming conventional. Up to half of all people with cancer may have tried some kind of complementary or alternative therapy, according to an estimate from the American Cancer Society.

Complementary approaches are meant to be used along with mainstream medicine, while alternative approaches are unproven treatments that people use instead of conventional care. Many, but not all, complementary therapies have been shown in controlled research to help relieve symptoms and improve quality of life for cancer survivors. On the other hand, alternative therapies can be quite dangerous, either because they keep people from getting helpful medical care or because they are harmful in themselves.

Wary queries

How can you sort the help from the hype when it comes to complementary and alternative therapies? These are a few key questions to ask:

  • Who is promoting the therapy? Is it supported by recognized experts who are affiliated with major universities or mainstream organizations?
  • How strong is the evidence that the therapy works? Has it been studied in well-controlled research published in respected medical journals? What are the expected benefits of the therapy?
  • What are the possible risks and side effects? Are the pluses likely to outweigh the minuses?
  • Will the therapy interfere with conventional medical treatment?
  • How much will the therapy cost? Will health insurance cover it?

Warning signs

Before trying any complementary or alternative approach, talk to your doctor. It's important to be frank, since some such therapies can be harmful when combined with certain standard treatments. In addition, watch out for these warning signs:

  • The promoters make unrealistic claims for the therapy. For example, they may tout it as a miracle cure for cancer and sometimes other diseases.
  • The promoters attack mainstream medicine and science. They tell you to use their therapy instead of, not along with, standard medical treatment.
  • The promoters say their therapy is a secret known just to a few. Reputable scientists share their findings openly in professional journals and meetings.
  • The therapy is only available in another country. The United States has a stringent system to safeguard public health. You circumvent it at your own risk.
  • The therapy is based on an unproven theory. The theory might turn out to be true, but it also might be false. Do you really want to gamble with your health?


American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society's Guide to Complementary and Alternative Methods. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2000; pp. 7, 8, 38.

National Cancer Institute. Questions and answers about complementary and alternative medicine in cancer treatment. December 13, 2000. Available at: