Terry Styles, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: August 17, 2007
What is alternative medicine? How about complementary treatments or integrative treatments? Is this conventional medicine? How about unconventional treatments? These terms are often used without explaining the definitions. With the increased popularity of unconventional medical treatments, these terms are being used more and more. Here is a guide to help with the confusing jargon.
Conventional cancer therapies consist of those forms of cancer treatment that are widely practiced and have been proven beneficial in clinical research trials. These may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and/or hormonal therapy. These treatments are used in mainstream cancer centers throughout the world.
Unconventional cancer therapies are basically any approaches to the diagnosis, treatment, and care of the cancer patient that fall outside conventional cancer treatments. Often, these are therapies not routinely taught in medical schools. Many different categories of unconventional therapies have been described including psychological techniques, specialized diets, herbal therapies, spiritual healers, traditional cultural techniques, and pharmacological treatments. While some of the therapies may have efficacy, many of the therapies have not had rigorous testing, others have been proven ineffective and others interfere with conventional treatments. These therapies fall under two categories these are complementary and alternative.
Complementary cancer treatments are those unconventional cancer therapies used in conjunction with conventional medical treatments. Sometimes the term Integrative Oncology is used to refer to the use of unconventional and conventional treatments together. The value of combining these therapies is being investigated at many centers and through The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Some treatments have shown value in helping patients with the side effects of their conventional medical treatments (such as acupuncture and guided imagery used for nausea caused by chemotherapy). Others are being evaluated for their benefit in preventing cancer or increasing the chance of cure when used in combination with conventional therapies.
Alternative cancer treatments are those unconventional cancer therapies that are used instead of conventional medical therapies. These therapies may report individual patients who have been cured with their treatment, however rigorous trials proving their benefit for the majority of patients are not available.
If you are considering unconventional medical treatments, it is very important that you discuss them with your physician. Although these can be helpful, many can interact with your body or your medications and make it difficult for you to complete your conventional medical treatments that have been proven to cure cancer.