Why Alternative Therapies Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

Many alternative treatments are not proven or effective
Mature woman cutting vegetables in the kitchen

Contributor: Jame Abraham, MD

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“I bought a cow so I can drink non-contaminated milk. I’m changing my diet completely and will eat only organic food.”

“I think cancer treatment is poison and will kill the immune system.”

“We believe in the natural approach rather than your medicines. Sure, it’s expensive, but if it’s going to save my life, we’ll do it.”

Over the years, I’ve heard such comments from patients. They’ve listened to cancer treatment horror stories — some of which truly are anomalies — from their friends and family, and will do whatever it takes to prevent them. Increasingly, they’re exploring solely relying on alternative, often unfounded, treatment. Even my logic doesn’t change their mind:

“You have an early stage breast cancer; a type that’s curable in more than 90 percent of the patients.”

“Some of the medicines are not chemotherapies. They are very specific for cancer cells and will not damage your immune system.”

Treatment to no avail

But I can only do so much. After practicing medicine for many years, I learned not to judge anyone. Cancer is such a complicated disease. My role is to tell patients about the right treatment, and it’s up to them to choose. If they don’t follow my recommendation, I must accept it.

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Unfortunately, too often, when I see these patients after months or even years of unconventional treatment, their cancer has spread or otherwise negatively impacted their well-being. The patient may have spent thousands of dollars for alternatives, changed his or her lifestyle and consumed only organic foods – to no avail.

The reality is many alternative treatments, which promise to cure cancer with a natural approach, are not proven or effective. Yet, there’s a whole industry that exploits the fears and anxieties of helpless patients.

Complementary therapy

What I encourage patients to explore instead are complementary approaches. These therapies, which include vitamins, diet, meditation or exercise, add value to the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. They are complementary to the proven and effective care.

The National Institutes of Health has indicated that the use of some form of complementary medicine increases with age – prevalence of 70 percent was found among patients 85 or older.

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While I may encourage incorporating complementary medicine into treatment plans, I also strongly advise my patients tell me about it. Knowing helps me see the full picture of the patient’s health and notice any potential adverse effects the complementary options may have when combined with traditional treatment.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic. 

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