Are You Unwittingly Practicing Alternative Medicine?

NEW YORK – 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.”)