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Herbal remedies for cancer could do more harm than good

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 14/11/2019 Laura Donnelly
Herbal remedies for cancer could do more harm than good © Getty Herbal remedies for cancer could do more harm than good

Herbal remedies for cancer patients could do more harm than good, a leading surgeon has warned. 

Patients have been urged to avoid the products amid concerns that growing numbers are turning to complementary medicines without telling their doctors, in an attempt to treat cancer that had spread to the skin. 

Experts warned that such therapies can interfere with chemotherapy, hormone therapy and delay wound healing. 

Speaking at the Advanced Breast Cancer conference in Lisbon, Professor Maria Joao Cardoso, head breast surgeon at the Champalimaud Cancer Centre in Portugal, said doctors often had no idea their patients were using such remedies.

One in five cases of breast cancer spreads to the skin, which can cause painful and disfiguring lesions. 

But Prof Cardaso said there was “nil” evidence to support the use of herbal treatments to treat them. 

Such remedies can stop the blood from clotting properly and worsen scarring.

Herbs and equipment used for alternative medicine © Getty Herbs and equipment used for alternative medicine

Garlic, ginger, turmeric and ginseng are all natural ingredients that adversely affect clotting, she said.

“It’s very important that patients always check with their doctors first before trying complementary treatments for cancer that has spread to the skin,” she said.

“Many patients do not check and do not tell their doctors that they are using complementary therapies.

Herbal medicines © Getty Herbal medicines

“There are many of these therapies, especially herbal products and topical creams, that can have a negative impact in cancer treatment. Many compounds are complex and some ingredients can delay healing and interfere with the efficacy of ongoing systemic treatments. Laboratory studies have shown that certain products can reduce the blood clotting process required for a wound to heal.”

She said patients often sought alternative medicines hoping it could help to treat painful or disfiguring lesions.  

“It’s not surprising that patients and their carers search for complementary or alternative treatments that might make a difference. But they could end up doing more harm than good,” she said. 

Activities such as yoga, acupuncture and Reiki may help patients manage their stress, she added.

The mint extract in a small jar © Getty The mint extract in a small jar

Dr Larry Norton, an oncologist from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center said that the internet meant cancer patients were likely to access unreliable information about complementary medicines.

He said: “Patients need to recognise that all opinions are not equal and there is still a vital role for experts, which includes the patient’s personal care team. Only trained, qualified, and experienced clinicians can give patients all the information and judgment they need to make decisions that are right for them.”

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