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Unwittingly Practicing CAM?

A study to appear in the September 1 issue of Cancer, the American Cancer Society (ACS) journal, found that many cancer survivors use some form of complementary medicine -- treatments that aren't fully supported by science and that lie outside traditional Western medicine. ("Complementary" means they're being used along with mainstream medical treatment; when they're used instead of regular medicine, we call them "alternative" medicine, and together they make up the field of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM). Among the most common methods they employed were prayer, relaxation, meditation, dietary supplements, and massage. (Not so common: homeopathy, biofeedback, and acupuncture.)

Relaxation as complementary medicine?

I never think of relaxation - or prayer, meditation, or massage, for that matter -- as a form of CAM.

The morning I read about the study, though, I awoke to find I'd scratched my face in my sleep; an ugly red line ran from my upper lip to my cheek. So I plucked an aloe leaf from the plant on my porch and applied its goo to help my cut heal faster.

I wasn't consciously using CAM when I rubbed that aloe on my face. I do yoga nearly every day, drink lots of green tea, and take a multivitamin every morning. Does all that make me a CAM adherent?

Maybe, maybe not. It all boils down to intention. According to Dr. Ted Gansler of the ACS, the study's co-author,

In our survey, we asked specifically, "Have you used any of the following to help you deal with your cancer?" So, if someone says grace or blessings before meals, although that is prayer it wouldn't be counted in our survey because it's not used to help a person deal with their cancer. If a patient's prayers include a specific request related to outcomes of their cancer, that does count. If you use aloe for a cut or burn, that wouldn't be counted in our survey, but it would be if a patient used it on the incision from a cancer operation or on an area that is red or sensitive as a result of radiotherapy.

But outside the bounds of that study, when I used that aloe specifically to help heal my scratch, that was me practicing CAM. And if I do yoga to help control my multiple sclerosis symptoms, it counts as CAM, but if I do it just for the fun of it, it's just yoga. (This way of defining things is in keeping with the stance of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), by the way, in whose view, for instance, prayer is considered CAM when it is "an active process of appealing to a higher spiritual power, specifically for health reasons.")

Do you knowingly, consciously practice CAM? Or do you, like me, just do a bunch of things that happen to fall in the CAM camp?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 13, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alternative and Complementary Medicine  
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I actively practice CAM. After Western Medicine told me the equivalent of "Sorry, can't help you. Live with it", I used acupuncture to successfully manage the issue for 7+ years. And felt better than I had in years....In my case, it was even quantifiable. So much so that my MD/PhD "science and Western Medicine only" significant other paid for a year's worth of treatment b/c he could see the results.

Posted by: LN | August 13, 2008 9:29 AM | Report abuse

The real question here is does actively practicing CAM help the patient? I suspect it does, if nothing else by giving the patient a positive outlook -- the idea that they are actively causing their cancer, illness, etc. to go into remission. There are some things that can be harmful, but supplementing medical treatment with yoga or acupuncture cannot hurt and quite possibly may help.

Posted by: skm | August 13, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Jennifer, your grandmother might have put butter on a burn, and called it a folk remedy. People have been doing these things since long before the term "CAM" was coined.

Posted by: Tom T. | August 13, 2008 11:09 AM | Report abuse

This is one of those distinctions where I get confused.
There is quite a lot of hostility towards alternative medicine in the science blogging community, say the blogger "Orac" at "Respectful Insolence" because it's perceived to be pseudo-science.

Yet what's the harm of practicing Yoga for your stiff joints, or prayer for mental peace?

As I understand it quack-type cures are always eager to slip in with things that most of use would just consider healthy living.

Posted by: RoseG | August 13, 2008 1:51 PM | Report abuse

I'm amused by the implication that all mainstream medical treatments are "fully supported by science...".

The rise of evidence-based medicine has been extraordinarily slow in the US. Doctors still perform many activities and prescribe many treatments simply because "that's the way we've always done it."

And consumers who think that "the FDA only approves prescription drugs that work" are shocked to find that the FDA routinely approves drugs with very low levels of efficacy - AKA "scientific support".

Need examples? For starters, annual cookie-cutter physicals, antibiotics for viral infections, and antifungal drugs like Lamisil, Penlac and Sporanox.

Leslie Nolen
President, The Radial Group
Business expertise for health & wellness

Posted by: Leslie Nolen | The Radial Group | August 13, 2008 6:05 PM | Report abuse

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