Complementary & Alternative Medicine Clinical Trials Influence Breast Cancer Care

August 29, 2012 at 8:58 pm 2 comments

Is low-level laser therapy an effective lymphedema treatment? Can acupressure reduce cancer related fatigue? Might green tea reduce breast cancer risk? These are among the more than 50 research questions now being studied in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) breast cancer trials throughout the United States.

But it wasn’t always this way. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, most doctors, oncologists included, paid little attention to what were then thought of as “unconventional” therapies. But as public interest grew in alternative treatments such as vitamins and supplements, traditional Chinese medicine treatments like acupuncture, and mind-body therapies like yoga and progressive muscle relaxation, the mainstream medical field began to take notice.

The real wake-up call came in January 1993, when a research group from Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that a third of the roughly 1500 adults surveyed reported using at least one “unconventional” therapy in the past year, and that a third of these adults saw “unconventional” providers. With each visit costing about $30.00, this suggested that Americans were currently spending about $13.7 billion a year on these treatments.

Almost overnight it became clear that what many medical providers thought of as “unconventional” was routine for more of their patients than they had ever imagined. This awareness of the public’s interest in alternative treatments coincided with the increased realization that medical care needed to become more “evidence-based” with recommended treatments supported by clinical trials. In response to these trends, the National Institutes of Health created the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998 to fund scientific research on the role of CAM in medical care. Funding was also specifically allocated for an Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) at the National Cancer InstituteAccording to the office’s most recent Annual Report, the NCI allocated $114,460,116 in 2010 to 406 CAM research projects. That year it also able to use $6,646,594 in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to award 27 additional CAM research grants.

Learning What Works—And Doesn’t

Medical oncologist Debu Tripathy helped develop while on the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Tripathy, now a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California Keck Medical Center, in Los Angeles, says there are two reasons CAM research is necessary: it’s already being used, and there is a need for more effective cancer treatments.

“CAM is already used widely … without it being clear what evidence there is to support it,” he says. “It’s possible that botanical or herbal agents may interact in negative ways with chemotherapy or other cancer treatments, and because people are already using these agents we need to understand whether they are effective or not and how and in what individuals. … There also are areas of great need where our current treatments are not very effective,” such as reducing the side effects of chemotherapy. “We need to broaden the search and look at alternatives that may be effective.”

The research done to date has already pointed to new possibilities. Studies have found, for example, that acupuncture reduces joint pain in some women with breast cancer, an ancient four-herb Chinese Medicine formula called PHY90 reduces chemotherapy-related side effects, weight lifting does not exacerbate and may improve lymphedema after breast cancer, and hypnosis before breast cancer surgery reduces pain and discomfort—and more results are on the way. (These and other CAM research results are available here.)

These and other findings have the potential to improve cancer patients’ quality of life during and after treatment. But, notes Tripathy, what many patients want to know—and what is less often funded—are trials that look at CAM treatments that have the potential to slow or stop a tumor’s growth. “I think it is those kinds of studies that patients are interested in,” he says.  They are happy to know that “massage therapy might make me feel better, but when it comes to sorting through claims about what has an anti-cancer effect”—we haven’t had those trials.

As with much of cancer research, the problem comes down to funding. Larger trials are necessary to show that a treatment is effective against cancer, but these trials take a lot of time and money. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies fund them because there is the potential to earn back what they spend—many times over—with a top-selling drug. But the same isn’t true for CAM. This is why, says Tripathy, “there are tons of early phase CAM trials, but so many fewer that go beyond the pilot state.” There have been phase III trials “that have looked at diet and exercise, and those have led to actual recommendations.” But that’s been the exception, not the rule.

Richard Lee, the medical director of the Integrative Medical Center at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, is on the frontline of the incorporation of evidence-based CAM into cancer care. Has he found oncologists in the U.S. to be more accepting of CAM than they used to be? “Yes and no,” he says. “CAM is such a broad term and it incorporates a variety of therapies. Oncologists are understanding more about the value of therapies like meditation and yoga. Certain things like acupuncture are gaining more acceptance. And some areas, like herbs and supplements and energy healing, remain controversial.”

Finding a CAM Trial

Since its launch, BCT has seen interest in CAM trials grow. To make finding these trials easier, BCT developed a CAM QuickView that provides one-click access to a list of all open CAM trials taking place at research centers throughout the country.

Julia Wiley, 47, was diagnosed in July 2010 with metastatic breast cancer. Since then, she has taken part in two treatment trials at UCSF. She also enrolled in a CAM trial at the Stanford University School of Medicine Center on Stress and Health, in Palo Alto, studying the relationships between stress, quality of sleep, hormones, immunity, and cancer progression. She learned about the study from a friend who had enrolled, and then went on to tell others about it as well. “I like contributing to research,” says Wiley, whose family owns an organic farm in Watsonville, Calif. “I also liked that this study didn’t require me to take another chemical and was looking into something that interested me.”

M .D. Anderson currently has four CAM studies open, and at least two more will be opening soon. One, says Lee, will study acupuncture for treating chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, while another will look at the effectiveness of an integrative care program that incorporates exercise, nutrition and stress management. Lee has found that breast cancer patients who are eligible are often interested in enrolling in trials. “Clinical trials are such a crucial part of advancing the field,” he says. “I appreciate those who have enrolled in trials and who are willing to collaborate with us to make a difference for the next person who is going to be diagnosed with cancer.”

For more information about OCCAM and to see research results from CAM studies, visit the OCCAM website:

Entry filed under: Breast Cancer Treatment, Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Tags: , , , , .

Q & A with Ann Fonfa From the BCT Team:

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1.  |  March 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks for another wonderful article. Where else may just anybody get that type of info in such a perfect approach of
    writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such info.

  • 2. Adrienne Washburn  |  April 3, 2014 at 2:53 am

    At first I was hesitant when my mom told me that she chooses to undergo holistic treatments for cancer instead of chemo therapy. I don’t really know if it will be good for my mom, but as her sessions continue, I saw great improvement on her health and she seems more chipper than she ever was, even before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m not sure if it is indeed the therapies that made her better or her new-found out look in life because of her what she’s been experiencing, but bottom line it made her better and that’s what matter most.


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