MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

The use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is common among cancer patients and it may reflect the individual and societal beliefs on cancer therapy. This paper aimed to evaluate the trends of CAM use among patients with cancer between 2006 and 2018.

The researchers included 2 Cohorts of patients with cancer seen at the Oncology Department at King Abdulaziz Medical City of Ministry of National Guard Health Affairs, Riyadh, KSA, who were recruited for Cohort 1 between 2006 and 2008 and for Cohort 2 between 2016 and 2018. The study is a cross-sectional study obtaining demographic and clinical information and inquiring about the types of SCAM used, the reasons to use them and the perceived benefits. The researchers compared the changes in the patterns of SCAM use and other variables between the two cohorts.

A total of 1416 patients were included in the study, with 464 patients in Cohort 1 and 952 patients in Cohort 2. Patients in Cohort 2 used less SCAM (78.9%) than Cohort 1 (96.8%). Cohort 1 was more likely to use SCAM to treat cancer compared to Cohort 2 (84.4% vs. 73%, respectively, p < 0.0001,); while Cohort 2 used SCAM for symptom management such as pain control and improving appetite among others. Disclosure of SCAM use did not change significantly over time and remains low (31.6% in Cohort 1 and 35.7% for Cohort 2). However, physicians were more likely to express an opposing opinion against SCAM the use in Cohort 2 compared to Cohort 1 (48.7% vs. 19.1%, p < 0.001, respectively).

The authors concluded that there is a significant change in SCAM use among cancer patients over the decade, which reflects major societal and cultural changes in this population. Further studies and interventions are needed to improve the disclosure to physicians and to improve other aspects of care to these patients.

I think that these are interesting findings. Should both patients and conventional healthcare professionally truly become more sceptical about SCAM? It would be good, in my view, but can we be sure?

The answer is NO!

Firstly, we would need data from other countries (SCAM use is known to show marked national differences). Secondly, we would require more up-to-date evidence. The present paper has suggested that, within one decade, SCAM use can change. Therefore, it is only reasonable to assume that it has changed again since 2016/18.

My hope is that progress continues. And by progress, I mean that those forms of SCAM that are demonstrably useful in palliative and supportive cancer care are employed wisely, while all the many bogus alternative cancer ‘cures’ are rapidly falling by the wayside.

One Response to Is the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) by cancer patients declining?

  • Saudi Arabia has undergone huge cultural changes over the last few decades and it would be surprising if better education, increased usage of social media and access to modern health care hasn’t changed their population’s use of traditional medicines. Although the paper refers only to CAM in the abstract without giving further details, in the text it is clear that this refers to vitamins, garlic, camel milk, olive oil, black seed (whatever that is), Zamzam water (a type of holy water from Mecca) and other herbs. In other words traditional remedies that were in use before Western-style cancer centres were built.

    I wouldn’t have thought that these results could be readily generalised to other populations.

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