Alternative and Complementary Treatments: Health Information for Older People

My brother has cancer and is looking into alternative treatments. He has seen ads for a clinic that claims an amazing success rate using unconventional approaches. Should he believe them?

Unconventional treatments for cancer or any other disease can sound tempting when you’re hoping for a cure. But researchers don’t know how safe or effective many of them are. Many have proven ineffective and even harmful; some haven’t undergone rigorous scientific testing at all.

Still, some types of complementary therapy — therapy used with, not instead of, conventional medicine — can be useful. Talk to your doctor about any treatment you’re considering. Besides telling you how safe or worthwhile the treatment might be, your doctor can let you know whether it could interfere with other medications and treatments you’re getting. And before you believe promises that an alternative or complementary treatment works, ask for a copy of any studies that prove it. Then ask a knowledgeable doctor, pharmacist, or other health care professional to review them. Take testimonials from “real people” with a shaker-full of salt. The testimonials could be embellished or even made up, and those “real people” could be actors, paid to read lines. Learn more from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Cancer Institute.

If you’re considering treatment at a clinic that’s far from home or requires an extended stay, check it out with your doctor. Some clinics offer effective treatments, but others prescribe untested, unapproved “cures” that don’t work and may even be dangerous. Sometimes, health care providers who work there are unlicensed or lack basic credentials. For information on a hospital, clinic, or treatment center, contact the health authorities where it’s located. If it’s in another country, contact that government’s health authority to make sure the facility is properly licensed and equipped to handle the procedures involved.

Patients who want to try an experimental treatment should talk to their doctor about how they might enroll in a clinical study. For information on both federally and privately supported clinical trials, visit ClinicalTrials.gov. You also can learn about clinical trials — and when patients may take investigational drugs outside of a trial — at the FDA's Office of Special Health Issues.

Find links to more information on alternative and complementary medicine at MedlinePlus.gov and Healthfinder.gov.

Who Cares About Alternative and Complementary Treatments?

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
1-888-644-6226
(TTY: 1-866-464-3615)

National Cancer Institute
1-800-422-6237
(TTY: 1-800-332-8615)

American Cancer Society
1-800-227-2345
(TTY: 1-866-228-4327)

Clinical Trials

ClinicalTrials.gov

National Cancer Institute
1-800-422-6237
(TTY: 1-800-332-8615)

FDA, Office of Special Health Issues
1-800-216-7331

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