Long before the word “mesothelioma” was even in your vocabulary, you probably had vitamin supplements or some other kind of dietary supplement (such as fish oil or echinacea) in your house. You might have seen a statement on the pill bottles to the effect that the product is not meant to diagnose, prevent, or cure any disease. These are alternative and complementary therapies. They are known as complementary therapies when people take them in combination with drugs prescribed (or recommended, in the case of over-the-counter medications) by a physician. For example, if you have strep throat, and you take prescription antibiotics as well as vitamin C and echinacea, this is a complementary therapy. Alternative therapy is when you use some other kind of treatment instead of pharmaceutical drugs. For example, if you have a sore throat and decide that the best way to treat it is with vitamin C and echinacea, this is an alternative treatment. (If you had gone to a doctor, the doctor might tell you that it is a cold and you should take vitamin C and echinacea or whatever eases your symptoms, or he or she might tell you that it is strep and prescribe antibiotics.)
Alternative therapies are generally safe; the FDA bans supplements that have been shown to be unsafe. An example of a recently banned supplement is a geranium extract, an amphetamine-like stimulant found in some supplements marketed for weight loss and fitness until the FDA outlawed it in 2018. The FDA regulates supplements in much the same way as it regulates food; if the bottle says that each pill contains 1,200 milligrams of calcium, then it does, just as the bag of m&ms discloses the fact that one of the ingredients is a food coloring called yellow #5. For both food products (including dietary supplements) and pharmaceutical drugs, the law requires packaging to state the ingredients accurately, including the amounts in which vitamins and minerals are present. For pharmaceutical drugs, however, the controls are stricter; as with food and supplements, all ingredients are listed on the packaging, but before a drug can be marketed, it must undergo clinical trials to determine that it is safe and effective at treating a particular medical condition.
What Is Alternative Medicine?
“Alternative medicine” is a broad term to refer to practices that aim to cure and prevent diseases and manage symptoms but are not acknowledged or recommended by professional physicians or by national and international health guidelines. Many alternative and complementary therapies involve ingesting or applying substances derived from plants or other living things, as do many pharmaceutical drugs. Traditional healing practices from many different cultures are included in the definition of “alternative medicine” in the United States; these include massage therapies that originated in various parts of the world, such as acupuncture, which originated in traditional Chinese medicine, and hijama (wet cupping), which has been practiced for centuries in many parts of the Islamic world. The consumption of entheogens such as ayahuasca, which has been consumed in South America since ancient times, is also considered alternative medicine.
How well does alternative medicine work? It is difficult to generalize because there are so many alternative treatments and so many applications for them. Taking vitamin C tablets may make you get colds less often, but it will not cure cancer or HIV, no matter how many tablets you take. Likewise, there have been few clinical trials about most applications of alternative and complementary therapies; if a certain alternative or complementary therapy works, it is hard to know why. It is especially difficult to tell whether the substance itself has an effect at the molecular level, or whether it is simply the placebo effect. The placebo effect is where you feel better simply because you think you have undergone treatment. (One method of research for testing new medications measures the outcomes of people who take the medicine compared to those who only think they are taking it. For example, researchers might give Metformin pills to one group of diabetic patients participating in the study. They will then give the control group pills that look identical to Metformin pills but do not contain any Metformin; these are placebo pills. By comparing the blood sugar levels of the patients who took the drug to those of the patients who took the placebo, they can tell how well the drug does or does not work.)
Some alternative therapies are based on centuries-old cultural practices. Others are based on relatively new scientific theories that are not accepted by the majority of professional scientists. Meanwhile, some practitioners with a background in alternative medicine provide treatments that medical doctors would not find strange. The disciplines of chiropractic and osteopathy originated as scientific theories that have never gained mainstream acceptance. Today, though, Doctors of Osteopathy (D.O.) undergo training very similar to that of Doctors of Medicine (M.D.); graduates of D.O. schools are eligible to take the same licensing exams as graduates of M.D. Schools; in other words, in practice, osteopathy in practice has mostly merged with modern medicine. Chiropractic is still considered an alternative medicine therapy, but some treatments administered by chiropractors are also used in physical therapy, and some chiropractors are also licensed physical therapists.
Popular Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Mesothelioma
Cancer research is ongoing, and it has progressively become more effective. Today, more than two-thirds of people diagnosed with cancer survive at least five years beyond their initial diagnosis, which is an enormous improvement over the situation of several decades ago. The main treatments used in oncology are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy. A technique involving one of these (or involving some other form of treatment) is considered an experimental therapy if accredited hospitals are conducting research on it; the fact that it is not widely available does not make it an alternative treatment.
The alternative and complementary therapies that people use for mesothelioma overlap a lot with the alternative and complementary therapies that people pursue to help them manage other diseases. For example, some people seek out acupuncture, massage therapy, medical cannabis, vegan diets, dietary supplements (such as turmeric), and psilocybin (an entheogen) in addition to or instead of surgery or chemotherapy. Some alternative and complementary therapies may reduce symptoms such as nausea and anxiety, but they do not slow the progress of cancer.
Why Do People Choose Complementary and Alternative Therapies?
People have many different reasons for choosing complementary and alternative therapies. Some of them have consistently used complementary therapies for many years before their cancer diagnosis. For example, a woman who found that herbal supplements and meditation helped relieve her symptoms of menopause (whether or not she also took hormone therapy during the menopausal transition) might choose these treatments after a cancer diagnosis because she has had a good experience with them in the past.
Another motivation for choosing complementary and alternative therapies for cancer is the fear of the side effects of conventional cancer treatments. Although medical research is constantly searching for new treatments with fewer side effects, as well as for ways to reduce the side effects of the currently available treatments, cancer treatment is not painless. Some patients choose complementary therapies (such as acupuncture or medical cannabis) to reduce their nausea, making it easier for them to maintain adequate nutrition. Some patients, especially those who have already undergone chemotherapy, decide that any benefit they might derive from another course of chemotherapy is not worth the side effects, so they choose not to undergo any more chemotherapy treatments. These patients tend to seek out alternative therapies to relieve their symptoms, even if they do not expect these alternative treatments to prolong their lives.
Can Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Mesothelioma Make Things Worse?
While alternative therapies do not have the same mechanism of action as the pharmaceutical drugs that patients hope to avoid by taking them, many of them are powerful enough to have an observable effect on the body. When people take nutritional supplements as a substitute for pharmaceutical drugs, they often take them at very high doses. It is possible to “overdose” on nutritional supplements; you might have heard of people taking so much beta-carotene that it caused an orange discoloration of their skin or becoming severely ill because they took too many zinc supplements. This tends to happen when patients believe fraudulent or unproven claims that, if they take a big enough dose of a nutritional supplement, it is as good as taking a pharmaceutical drug.
Another danger of dietary supplements is their interactions with pharmaceutical drugs. You should be honest with your medical team about which supplements you are taking. They might tell you to discontinue some of them out of caution about drug interactions (they could make your cancer drugs less effective, or they could even cause additional side effects), or they might even recommend other supplements.
Beware of Alternative Cancer Therapy Scams
Most complementary therapies will not make you sicker, even if they do not make you healthier in any measurable way. If you find these therapies helpful, and if your doctors say that it is safe to take them in combination with your prescribed treatment regimen, then you should take them. You should beware, however, of alternative therapies that claim to be able to cure cancer, especially if they are expensive. These are scams that prey on people’s fear and desperation.