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Cancer Center
Senior Health

Risks of Alternative Medicine for Senior Cancer Patients

Alternative medicines are widely thought to be at least harmless and very often helpful for a wide range of discomforts and illnesses. However, although they’re marketed as “natural,” they often contain active ingredients that can react chemically and biologically with other therapies. Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University in Phladelphia performed a comprehensive review of all of the medications taken by senior oncology patients and found that as 26 percent were using complementary or alternative medicines (CAM). The report was published August 12th 2015 in the Journal of Geriatric Oncology.

A release from the university quotes Ginah Nightingale, PharmD, an Assistant Professor in the Jefferson College of Pharmacy at Thomas Jefferson University, as saying, “Currently, few oncologists are aware of the alternative medicines their patients take. Patients often fail to disclose the CAMs they take because they think they are safe, natural, nontoxic and not relevant to their cancer care, because they think their doctor will disapprove, or because the doctor doesn’t specifically ask.”

There are a number of CAMs that are known to interfere with certain cancer treatments. For example, St. John’s wart can make some cancer therapy less effective, according to the National Institutes of Health. Others can interfere with anesthesia during surgery for cancer. But not all interactions have been studied. Because CAMs fall under the category of health supplements, they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that dose and potency (and therefore reaction in the body) can vary widely between products, and between patients.

In addition, in an elderly population of cancer patients, CAMs can simply add additional medications to an already long list of drugs taken for various ailments. “Numerous pills, or what we call polypharmacy in the field, can increase the risk for medication non-adherence, potential drug-drug interactions and increase the risk for drug-disease interactions in a population that has been reported to take several medications and have several medical conditions,” says Dr. Nightingale, “The use of CAM in this subpopulation warrants substantial interest and concern on behalf of medical oncologists and allied health professionals because of the potential clinical implications associated with CAM use. Patients may be combining these agents while receiving concurrent systemic chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or surgical interventions which have the potential to compromise the safety and efficacy of treatment interventions.”


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