This review summarized the available evidence on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) used with radiotherapy. Systematic literature searches identified studies on the use of SCAM during radiotherapy. Inclusion required the following criteria: the study was interventional, SCAM was for human patients with cancer, and SCAM was administered concurrently with radiotherapy. Data points of interest were collected from included studies. A subset was identified as high-quality using the Jadad scale. Fisher’s exact test was used to assess the association between study results, outcome measured, and type of SCAM.
Overall, 163 articles met inclusion. Of these, 68 (41.7%) were considered high-quality trials. Articles published per year increased over time. Frequently identified therapies were biologically based therapies (47.9%), mind-body therapies (23.3%), and alternative medical systems (13.5%). Within the subset of high-quality trials, 60.0% of studies reported a favorable change with SCAM while 40.0% reported no change. No studies reported an unfavorable change. Commonly assessed outcome types were patient-reported (41.1%) and provider-reported (21.5%). The rate of favorable change did not differ based on the type of SCAM or outcome measured.
The authors concluded that concurrent SCAM may reduce radiotherapy-induced toxicities and improve quality of life, suggesting that physicians should discuss SCAM with patients receiving radiotherapy. This review provides a broad overview of investigations on SCAM use during radiotherapy and can inform how radiation oncologists advise their patients about SCAM.
In my recent book, I have reviewed the somewhat broader issue of SCAM for palliative and supportive care. My conclusions are broadly in agreement with the above review:
… some forms of SCAM—by no means all— benefit cancer patients in multiple ways… four important points:
• The volume of the evidence for SCAM in palliative and supportive cancer care is currently by no means large.
• The primary studies are often methodologically weak and their findings are contradictory.
• Several forms of SCAM have the potential to be useful in palliative and supportive cancer care.
• Therefore, generalisations are problematic, and it is wise to go by the current best evidence …
One particular finding of the new review struck me as intriguing: The rate of favorable change did not differ based on the type of SCAM. Combined with the fact that most studies are less than rigorous and fail to control for non-specific effects, this indicates to me that, in cancer palliation (and perhaps in other areas as well), SCAM works mostly via non-specific effects. In other words, patients feel better not because the treatment per se was effective but because they needed the extra care, attention, and empathy.
If this is true, it carries an important reminder for oncology: cancer patients are very vulnerable and need all the empathy and compassion they can get. Seen from this perspective, the popularity of SCAM would be a criticism of conventional medicine for not providing enough of it.