By Jane Williams, RN, MSN, FNP-BC, Gabriel Lopez, M.D., and Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., Integrative Medicine Center
Patients and health care providers are often overwhelmed by the copious amount of information about complementary and alternative treatments available on the internet, in magazines, and on television talk shows. Friends, family, or colleagues with good intentions can also provide advice on what patients should be doing. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine if the information is reliable, and if there are commercial interests influencing the promotion of a therapy. Many therapies advertise unsubstantiated claims with promises ranging from better health and increased energy to weight loss or strengthened immune systems and even cure of diseases.
The Pew Internet & American Life Tracking surveys from March 2011 to February 2012 estimate that 80 percent of adults ages 18 to 65+ use the internet for health and medical information. However, even credible reviews can go out-of-date quickly.
Credible websites can include those URL's ending in:
• ".gov" -- government agency
• ".org" -- professional or non-profit organizations
• ".edu" -- educational institution
Be cautious of:
".com" -- commercial site
Articles often refer to research studies; however, it is important to pay attention to the subtleties in the language used in these references. Even reputable newspapers and journalists will often over-interpret animal studies or even studies done just with cancer cells and make suggests for human use even in the absence of human studies.
Follow these tips to interpret the context clues when it comes to how research studies are referenced in an article:
- One or a few observations
- Anecdote or case report
- Nonhuman subjects
- Results not related to hypothesis
- No limitations mentioned
- Not compared to previous results
- Many observations
- Scientific study
- Published and peer reviewed
- Human subjects
- Results about tested hypotheses
- Limitations discussed
- Relationship to previous studies discussed
Patients with cancer and their caregivers might be vulnerable to advertising, and understandably so, due to fears related to their diagnosis and possibility of recurrence. Almost everyone has heard the advice, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Here are a few tactics used by advertisers to watch out for:
- Catchphrases such as "scientific breakthrough," "secret ingredient," or "medical miracle."
- Conspiracy theories. "Doctors don't want you to know about this; it will put them out of business." "Cure-alls." No single treatment will cure multiple conditions or cure all cancers.
- Money-back guarantees. Buy now promotions. "Supplies are limited," "Don't miss this one-time offer." May be part of a marketing scheme.
- Technical jargon. Sophisticated language can obscure the fact that there is no scientific backing.
Although research is ongoing in areas such as healing touch, homeopathy, natural products, and special diets, there is insufficient evidence to recommend these within the standard of care. Many products that are promoted as "natural" may actually be made from natural ingredients, but can still have detrimental side effects such as toxicity to organs like the liver or kidneys, and may interfere with cancer treatments either by making them more toxic or making them ineffective.
Always discuss any supplements, herbal therapies, or special diets with your health care providers to give them a complete picture of what you do to manage your health.
The Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson offers a number of reliable online resources to the public. The role of the education team within the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson is to provide authoritative, evidence-based information for healthcare professionals, caregivers and patients who would like to safely incorporate complementary medicine therapies with conventional cancer care. Much of this information is available online including reviews of therapies, which are publicly accessible databases that provide reliable, up-to-date information on complementary therapies.
In addition, the website contains free audio and video recordings available in English and Spanish that provide helpful programs for cancer recovery and videos that feature an exciting lecture series of internationally renowned speakers. Finally, the Integrative Medicine Program puts out a monthly newsletter with a feature article dedicated to topic relevant to the field of Integrative Medicine.
Other reliable internet resources for cancer include: