Why Do People Use Complementary and Holistic Therapies?

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The goal of complementary medicine is to balance the whole person — physically, mentally, and emotionally — while conventional medicine does its work. For many people diagnosed with breast cancer, complementary medicine has helped to:

  • relieve symptoms
  • ease treatment side effects
  • improve quality of life

Researchers are working to better understand the value and benefit of complementary medicine in breast cancer. While several studies have looked at factors that make people more likely to use complementary therapies, no research has asked people why they use complementary medicine techniques.

A study designed to answer that question suggests that people diagnosed with cancer who are younger, female, and have a college education tend to expect more benefits from complementary and holistic medicine.

The study was published online on May 26, 2015 by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “Do attitudes and beliefs regarding complementary and alternative medicine impact its use among patients with cancer? A cross-sectional survey.”

In the study, the researchers surveyed 969 people who had been diagnosed with thoracic, breast, or gastrointestinal cancer about their attitudes and beliefs about complementary holistic medicine. The surveys were done between June 2010 and September 2011 and included questions about the expected benefits of complementary medicine and any perceived barriers to using complementary medicine.

The results showed that people who were:

  • age 65 or younger
  • female
  • college educated

expected more benefits from complementary medicine than other people.

People who weren’t white perceived more barriers to using complementary medicine than white people, but both white and non-white people had the same expectations about complementary medicine’s benefits.

The researchers also found that people’s attitudes and beliefs about complementary medicine were much more likely to influence whether they used complementary medicine than the characteristics of the cancer they were diagnosed with or their demographic information.

"We found that specific attitudes and beliefs — such as expectation of therapeutic benefits, patient-perceived barriers regarding cost and access, and opinions of patients' physician and family members — may predict patients' use of complementary and alternative medicine following cancer diagnoses," said Jun Mao, M.D., of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s authors. "We also found that these beliefs and attitudes varied by key socio-demographic factors such as sex, race, and education, which highlights the need for a more individualized approach when clinically integrating complementary and alternative medicine into conventional cancer care."

"Our findings emphasize the importance of patients' attitudes and beliefs about complementary and alternative medicine as we seek to develop integrative oncology programs in academic medical centers and community hospitals," said Joshua Bauml, M.D., also of the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center and another author. "By aligning with patients' expectations, removing unnecessary structural barriers, and engaging patients' social and support networks, we can develop patient-centered clinical programs that better serve diverse groups of cancer patients regardless of sex, race, and education levels."

If you’re interested in adding a complementary therapy to your treatment plan, make sure you talk to your cancer doctor first. Your doctor wants to make sure you get the quality care you deserve. Coordination between all the doctors and practitioners you see helps to make sure you get the best care possible.

For more information on complementary therapies, including the types of complementary techniques, the benefits of complementary therapies, and how to find a practitioner, visit the Breastcancer.org Complementary and Holistic Medicine pages.



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