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Suzanne Somers Tries Alternative Therapy to Treat Breast Cancer, Studies Show She’s Not Alone (dateline April 18, 2001)

Actress Suzanne Somers recently announced that she has breast cancer and is using an alternative therapy to help treat the disease. Somers is taking Iscador, an extract of mistletoe that some claim stimulates the immune system and helps fight cancer and other diseases. While standard breast cancer treatment typically consists of surgery, chemotherapy,radiation, and/or other drug therapies, recent studies find that the majority of breast cancer patients also use some form of non-traditional therapy in addition to these established ones. Commonly used alternative therapies include acupuncture, vitamin and nutritional supplements, herbs, meditation, massage and visualization techniques.

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.

Fifty-four year old Somers told talk show host Larry King that she had undergone breast cancer surgery (lumpectomy) and radiation therapy. She has now opted to take injections of the mistletoe extract Iscador in place of chemotherapy, against the recommendation of her doctors (although she recently told Today Show host Katie Couric that she may re-consider having chemotherapy at a later date). The injection of mistletoe is one of the most commonly prescribed complementary therapies for cancer patients in Europe, particularly in Germany and Switzerland. Only European species of mistletoe are used in these countries and are sold under the brand names Iscador or Helixor. Mistletoe is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.

European physicians who prescribe mistletoe preparations believe that mistletoe helps strengthen the immune system and may slow the growth of cancer. Injections of mistletoe are usually made directly into or near the cancerous tumor (Somers injects Iscador into her abdomen). Mistletoe is used in Europe as a complementary therapy to treat several types of cancer, including breast, cervical, ovarian, stomach, colon, lung, leukemias, sarcomas, and lymphomas. In Europe, mistletoe extracts are usually administered before cancer surgery and appear to be safe to use with chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Side effects of mistletoe include temporary redness at the injection site, headache, fever, and chills. Medical literature on mistletoe does not reveal other toxic effects of the extract when used in the form of an injection. However, mistletoe is poisonous when taken orally or intravenously (through a vein). Mistletoe preparations also vary depending on how they are prepared (fermented or non-fermented), the particular species that is used, and the season in which the mistletoe is harvested.

While several European studies have focused on the use of mistletoe, the American Cancer Society says that no controlled human studies have shown mistletoe to have any significant anti-tumor activity. Furthermore, the majority of studies on mistletoe have flaws and are not considered scientifically accepted. A review of mistletoe by the Canadian Breast Cancer Initiative’s Task Force on Alternative Therapies reports that "although there is laboratory evidence of biological activity that may be beneficial to cancer patients, the evidence of clinical benefit from human studies remains weak and inconclusive. Because of the absence of serious side effects and the limited evidence that mistletoe products may offer some therapeutic advantage, further research is warranted."

Many Cancer Patients Try Alternative/Complementary Therapies

Studies show that despite a lack of clear-cut scientific evidence in favor of alternative medicines, the majority of cancer patients use non-traditional therapies in addition to standard cancer treatment. In a recent survey of 1,935 cancer patients, researchers found that 84% of breast cancer patients and 66% of patients with other cancers reported using non-traditional therapies. Study participants cited the need to boost their immune systems as the most common reason why they considered complementary therapies.

In another study, researchers surveyed women of four ethnic groups (Latino, white, black, and Chinese) who were diagnosed with breast cancer in San Francisco, California between 1990 and 1992. The study revealed that over 50% of the breast cancer patients used some form of alternative therapy and approximately one-third of the patients used two or more alternative therapies. The choice of therapy varied among ethnic group and included spiritual healing, herbal remedies, dietary methods, massage, and acupuncture. More than 90% of the study participants said they found the therapies helpful and would recommend them to others.

Yet despite the large number of cancer patients who use non-traditional therapies, studies find that only a few patients discuss these alternative/complementary therapies with their cancer treatment physicians. The majority of women surveyed about this issue said that they did not discuss this issue with their physicians because they either believed their traditional physicians did not know enough about alternative therapies or that the physicians would discourage them from continuing non-traditional practices.

Researchers believe this lack of communication between physician and patient puts women at greater risk for drug interactions and serious setbacks in cancer treatment. While the majority of complementary therapies may be taken or practiced with standard therapies, a few may cause negative reactions. For example, a recent study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that vitamin A and vitamin E kept cancer cells from dying in laboratory rats, (although the results have not been confirmed in humans). Therefore, patients should discuss all non-traditional therapies with their physicians to make sure they are safe. Physicians who treat cancer patients are also encouraged to initiate a discussion of alternative/complementary medicines with their patients so they can better understand their patients’ treatment preferences.

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