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Alternative/Complementary Medicine


An "alternative" therapy is a treatment that is used in place of traditional medicine. A "complementary" therapy is a treatment that is used as a supplement to traditional medicine. Alternative and complementary medicines have become increasingly popular in recent years. According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), Americans spent more than $27 billion on alternative or complementary therapies in 1997. This is more than all out-of-pocket hospital costs combined for 1997 (out-of pocket costs are costs the patient may pay in addition to the costs covered by his or her health insurance or health plan).

While anecdotal evidence reveals that many alternative or complementary medicines may be beneficial to patients, extensive research is still needed to determine whether non-traditional medicines are truly effective. Therefore, most physicians recommend that patients who use non-traditional medicines use them only as supplements to traditional treatment options that have been scientifically proven to be effective. Currently, there is no scientific evidence that non-traditional therapies can cure breast cancer.

That is not to say that complementary medicines are not viable options for some patients. When used in conjunction with traditional medicines, some complementary therapies may be very beneficial to the physical or psychological well-being of a patient. There have been studies that show that non-traditional medicines can help alleviate the symptoms of cancer or ease the side effects of traditional therapies. For example, Chinese herbs have been shown to lessen the side effects of chemotherapy and acupuncture has been shown to reduce nausea (a possible side effect of chemotherapy and other drug therapies).

Alternative Medicine Complementary Medicine
A non-traditional therapy that is used in place of traditional medicine. A non-traditional therapy that is used as a supplement to traditional medicine.

However, it is important for patients to realize that not all alternative or complementary medicines are safe. Patients who are considering non-traditional medicines should thoroughly investigate the therapy and consult with their physicians or alternative medicine practitioners to make sure the therapy is safe and will not interact with other medicines they may be taking.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that patients ask the following questions when considering an alternative or complementary therapy:

  • What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
  • What are the risks associated with this therapy?
  • Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
  • What side effects can be expected?
  • Will the therapy interfere with conventional treatment?
  • Will the therapy be covered by health insurance?