Talking to Your Doctor About Complementary Medicine

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About two-thirds of all people who use complementary medicine have not talked about these treatments with their cancer doctors. This could be for a number of reasons. Because medical schools didn't offer classes on complementary therapies until relatively recently, you may think that your doctor doesn't know anything about complementary medicine. Or maybe because some complementary therapies seem more spiritual than medicinal, you may think your doctor doesn't need to know about them.

If you would like to try complementary therapies, it's important to talk to your primary doctor about it. 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.

How to talk to your doctor

Researchers say (and a Breastcancer.org survey confirmed) that many people don't want to tell their cancer doctors that they are using complementary therapies.

Here are some reasons many people say they can't discuss their use of complementary medicine:

  • There's not enough time during the doctor's visit.
  • The doctor might not take them seriously.
  • The doctor might disapprove.
  • The doctor doesn't ask about these treatments, so why should they volunteer any information?
  • Their doctor did not study this type of medicine in school.
  • They feel they don't know enough to have an in-depth discussion about the therapies.

If you feel that these concerns could keep you from discussing complementary medicine with your doctor, there are things you can do:

  • Ask for more time. You can alert the nurse or doctor in advance that you'll need a little more time in the appointment to talk about these issues.
  • Be specific. The more specific you can be about the kind of complementary therapy you're interested in, the easier it will be for your doctor to offer help. For example, if you're interested in acupuncture, make a list of the symptoms you think it will help. Your doctor will be better able to help you figure out if acupuncture would be safe for you and how it can be integrated into your conventional therapies.
  • If your doctor is not familiar with complementary medicine, direct him or her to books, websites, or research on the techniques you want to try. If patients are interested in a treatment, most doctors want to learn about it so they can provide help and advice. If you can direct your doctor to information sources he or she respects, you'll most likely have a productive discussion about complementary therapies.

    How much your doctor knows about complementary medicine may depend on where he or she practices medicine. If you're being treated at an academic medical center, the cancer doctors there probably have worked with a number of specialists. There may even be a complementary therapy center within the hospital. Your doctor might have colleagues in psychology who offer meditation or colleagues who are pain specialists and do acupuncture.

    If your doctor practices at a small hospital that's not connected to a medical school, he or she may not have had the chance to interact with complementary therapy practitioners. But that doesn't mean that he or she doesn't know anything about complementary therapies.
  • Learn about the technique you want to try so you can start the conversation. The Resource Guide in this section will give you the background that you need to bring up the subject with your doctor.

Preparing for your discussion

Once you've made the decision to talk to your doctor about complementary medicine, you can use the talking guide below. This list can help you prepare for the discussion and make an outline of topics to bring up.

  1. Do a little homework. Download information on the therapies that interest you from reputable websites, such as Breastcancer.org, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and cancer center sites, such as those listed in our Finding a Complementary Medicine Practitioner section. Write down your questions. Bring the information and questions with you to your appointment. When your doctor asks if you have any questions, choose the top 3 things you want to discuss in your appointment — and make complementary medicine one of those 3 things.
  2. Express your point of view. Tell your doctor that you have started to read about complementary therapies or you want to try them. Make it clear that you feel complementary medicine is an important way to help your physical and emotional symptoms, as well as your quality of life. Make statements with "I" in them, such as "I have read a lot about acupuncture and breast cancer, and I feel it may be helpful in my treatment."
  3. Listen to your doctor's response. Give your doctor enough time to respond to your statements. After she or he has spoken, make sure you understand the doctor's point of view.
  4. Talk to the nurse about complementary therapies. Nurses may have had more training in complementary medicine. The nurse also can go over the points you have already brought up with the doctor.
  5. Ask your doctor if your complementary medicine practitioner can call to discuss your combined care. Your doctor may be concerned that your complementary medicine practitioner has not worked with people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Or your doctor may have a question about the practitioner's credentials. A conversation between the two can help ensure you get the quality care you deserve.
  6. Restate your commitment to conventional cancer treatment. It's important for your doctor to know that you are committed to continuing your chemotherapy, radiation treatments, or hormonal therapy.

Expert Quote

"To reap the full benefits of the doctor-patient relationship, we have to be part of the same team. Patients need to talk openly with their doctors about complementary therapies."

-- Beth Baughman DuPree, M.D., F.A.C.S.

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