Alternative therapies may be harmful

SINGAPORE - That cancer can be treated with special diets, herbal supplements and rituals is an attractive claim.

Dr Lim Siew Eng, a senior consultant in the Department of Haematology-Oncology at the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore, says: "Forty-three per cent of all patients in Singapore use traditional medicine... and this number is probably higher for cancer patients.

Alternative therapies often appeal because they are perceived as a "magic and natural" therapy, and are relatively easier to understand than conventional medicine, she adds.

These methods also become a tempting option for patients who are told by doctors that nothing more can be done for their condition, says Dr Toh Han Chong, head and senior consultant at the department of medical oncology of the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS).

"They usually feel that they are at the end of the road and this is when they start to consider alternatives such as traditional Chinese medicine," he says.

Doctors say that some of these methods could alleviate cancer-related symptoms, but ignoring conventional treatment altogether could be detrimental.

"It is heartbreaking when a potentially curable cancer kills the patient because he or she refuses potentially curative treatment and opts for an alternative treatment that does nothing for the cancer itself," says Dr Choo Su Pin, a senior consultant in NCCS' Department of Medical Oncology.

Evidence and research into the efficacy of these methods are not well-documented either.

"Some alternative therapies may help with general well-being and symptoms, but there is really insufficient evidence that they actually do anything for the cancer itself, so when a patient opts to only have alternative treatment, the cancer continues to progress," she explains.

There was a case of a patient with "potentially curable" lymphoma who refused chemotherapy, she reveals.

The man in his 30s opted instead to follow a popular alternative diet promoted by an ex-local DJ.

"He almost died from electrolyte imbalance due to the diet and eventually succumbed to the cancer," says Dr Choo.

Alternative treatments often appeal because they are perceived to be natural and holistic, but there are instances when they can be harmful.

"Restrictive or specialised diets which are devoid of salt and sugar are common forms of alternative or complementary therapy.

"(But) the most effective diet for cancer survivors is a healthy, balanced diet with emphasis on fruits and vegetables - five servings a day, and to limit intake of processed and red meat," Dr Lim maintains.


This article was first published in The New Paper.

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