Growing Use of Herbal Medicine in Cancer Patients Highlights Risks, Communication Gaps

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As patients take more proactive roles in their health, they may feel too intimidated to discuss herbal medicinal use with their providers or may be unaware of potential interactions with their drug therapies.

The use of herbal medicines is rising in patients with cancer as more individuals take active roles in managing their health. Herbal products have become more popular due to patient perceptions that they are safe and natural options. A meta-analysis published in 2021 in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine estimates that approximately 22% of oncology patients globally use herbal medicines, with a prevalence of about 21% in North America and 18% in Europe.1

Herbal medicines in a bowl and herbs

Image credit: © Elenathewise | stock.adobe.com

In its February 2024 issue, Cureus published a study highlighting concerns about the increased use of herbal products in patients with cancer and their subsequent lack of disclosure to health care providers. The authors emphasize that patients often use herbal medicines as complementary treatments alongside conventional therapy. However, patients’ reluctance to disclose this information can potentially interfere with cancer therapy, leading to increased toxicities or subtherapeutic responses.2

The study included 65 patients diagnosed with colorectal, breast, or prostate cancers at a Portuguese hospital.2 Results indicated that nearly half of the patients used herbal products regularly for various ailments such as detoxification, immune system support, constipation, and insomnia.2 Notably, about 37% of patients had herbal-drug interactions, with the most common being between doxorubicin and vitamin C.2

The most significant issue uncovered in the study was the lack of communication about herbal medicine use between patients and health care providers. Researchers found that most patients were unaware of the potential for herbal products to interact with their oncology treatment.2 In addition, health care providers inquired about herbal medicine use only 40% of the time.2 Patients’ perceptions of herbal medicines as natural and safe options, coupled with providers’ sporadic discussions about alternative therapy use, elevate the potential for herbal-drug interactions and suboptimal therapeutic responses.

Although some herbal medicinal plants have displayed activity against cancer cells, others may interfere with cancer treatment and lead to unfavorable outcomes. More research is needed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of herbal product use in patients undergoing treatment for cancer.

Health care professionals must become more aware of the growing use of herbal medicines, particularly among oncology patients. As patients take more proactive roles in their health, they may feel too intimidated to discuss herbal medicinal use with their providers or may be unaware of potential interactions with their drug therapies. This is especially important because most oncology treatments contain narrow therapeutic drugs with high levels of toxicity.

The study authors call for additional research on the efficacy and safety of herbal medicines, especially in cancer care. They also advocate for improved communication between patients and health care providers to ensure optimal and integrated care that embraces the use of both conventional and alternative therapies.2

References

1. Asiimwe JB, Nagendrappa PB, Atukunda EC, et al. Prevalence of the use of herbal medicines among patients with cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2021;2021:9963038. doi:10.1155/2021/9963038

2. Vasques AC Sr, Cavaco P, Duarte T, et al. The use of herbal medicines among cancer patients. Cureus. 2024;16(2):e53455. doi:10.7759/cureus.53455

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