WASHINGTON—A new Cochrane review did not find serious side effects relating to the use of homeopathic medicine in patients having orthodox cancer care.
“Furthermore, there was no indication that the homeopathic medicine interfered with conventional cancer care,” said lead author Sosie Kassab, M.D., director of Complementary Cancer Services at the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital.
The reviewers assessed whether homeopathic medicine, used alongside traditional cancer treatments, benefits patients who suffer from painful or uncomfortable side effects from chemotherapy, radiation or other therapies.
Although it is not intended to treat cancer, patients sometimes turn to homeopathic medicine to prevent or ease side effects arising from cancer treatments, such as nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, mouth soreness caused by chemotherapy, skin reactions from radiotherapy and hot flashes from breast cancer treatment.
Homeopathic medicine is an alternative medical system with a basis in the belief that “like cures like.” Homeopathy relies on small, highly diluted medicinal substances to treat symptoms that in higher, more concentrated forms would actually cause the same symptoms.
The new review appears in the latest issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research. Systematic reviews like this one draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing medical trials on a topic.
The reviewers analyzed eight studies involving 664 cancer patients. Three studies looked at the use of homeopathic medicine in patients having radiotherapy; another three studies looked at chemotherapy; and two studies focused on how homeopathic medicine might help patients with menopausal symptoms associated with breast cancer treatments.
The reviewers did not find any studies on the use of homeopathic medicine to treat emotional side effects that could result from cancer treatments.
The review did not lead to any conclusions on whether homeopathy works. “The sum total of the evidence in this area is small and there is no evidence at present of sufficient quantity or quality to confirm either the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of these interventions,” Kassab wrote in an e-mail.
Kassab uses homeopathic medicine in her practice for patients with cancer who are also receiving conventional care.
While homeopathic medicines are often highly diluted and can be made from a variety of substances, they are typically prepared from botanical, zoological, mineral, chemical, synthetic or microbiological elements. The review looked at all types of homeopathic medicines, to reflect what a clinician might use for a variety of patients with cancer.
Lucille Marchand, M.D., clinical director of Integrative Oncology at the University of Wisconsin Paul P. Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center, said, “Homeopathic remedies are very dilute and generally very safe. If the patient believes strongly in the benefits of the homeopathic medicines, I believe that it has a higher potential of helping the patient.”
Marchand said that if patients desire this therapy, she refers them to a homeopathy practitioner. She said, “I send them to a well-trained practitioner in homeopathy whom I trust, one who has had positive results with my patients.”
What benefits, if any, were associated with the new homeopathic studies? Two of the eight studies provide preliminary data suggesting benefit associated with using particular homeopathic medicines. However, the remaining six studies provided no convincing evidence of benefit over placebo.
One study involving 32 participants showed benefit from using Trammel S (a combination of 14 homeopathic medicines) as a mouthwash to ease the discomfort of stomatitis, an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the mouth that chemotherapy might cause.
Another study involving 254 participants showed benefit from using calendula ointment to prevent and treat dermatitis caused by radiotherapy treatments for breast cancer.
“It was the only study among the eight cancer treatment trials that used a cream or ointment,” said Kassab.
Kassab cautioned that these data are preliminary and recommended replicating the studies with larger participant numbers involved.
Some health care professionals have expressed concern that patients might choose homeopathic remedies rather than pursue conventional treatments. However, Marchand believes that such concern is unfounded: “In conventional oncology, oncologists or other conventional health practitioners may discourage patients from using alternative therapies due to a fear, rather than knowledge, about possible interactions. That may be due to confusion that homeopathic remedies are botanicals or herbs rather than highly dilute remedies that will not interact with drugs and are usually very safe.”
The review discloses that a co-author has received lecture and seminar fees from homeopathic manufacturers.
Kassab S. Homeopathic medicines for adverse effects of cancer treatments. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 2.
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