Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Cancer Complementary and alternative therapies for cancer can best be described as treatments that do not involve the use of known anti-cancer drugs, or are procedures or techniques not commonly used by the medical community for cancer treatment. However, there is an important distinction between complementary and alternative therapies used in addition to standard cancer treatment (such as relaxation and/or visualization techniques) and those that claim to replace standard therapy and offer medical value (such as shark cartilage).

What Exactly Is Experimental Treatment?

What Are Experimental Treatments for People with Cancer? Are They Safe? Are They Effective? Are They Covered by Insurance?

If you have been recently diagnosed with cancer, or know someone who has, you are probably aware that there are a number of treatments that are referred to as experimental either by doctors, health care providers, or the public. This Brief will give you some guidelines for understanding what this means, and how it may affect you as a patient.

First, it is important to understand that the words experimental or investigational are often used to describe a number of different types of treatments. These can include completely new, untested drugs; the use of drugs for a purpose other than the use for which they were approved; new drug combinations; or lastly, what are known as alternative therapies, which are not drugs at all (such as shark cartilage or coffee enemas).

These treatment categories are all very different and carry very different risks and benefits. Yet they are all categorized as experimental simply because they have not yet been approved by the government. To help you sort this out, we should begin by understanding how a drug or treatment procedure gets approved in the first place.

How Are New Drugs Approved?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that any and all drugs available in the United States are truly safe and effective. Before a new drug can be marketed or sold in this country, it must be tested, and the test results must be presented to the FDA for careful review by its scientific and medical advisors. Once a drug is approved, it becomes a standard treatment and is then used in treatment centers and covered by insurance. However, the approval process can take years – especially testing, which usually happens through clinical trials

How Are New Procedures Approved?

The approval process for a new treatment procedure or technique is different than it is for a new drug, and more complicated. Neither the FDA nor any other governmental authority determines when a new procedure becomes standard treatment. Rather, a new procedure becomes standard when it is used often enough by treatment centers to be accepted in the medical community. For example, autologous bone marrow transplants (ABMT) are common now, but were considered experimental only several years ago. A few new procedures do undergo testing through clinical trials and are reviewed by the FDA, but they are not actually approved until the medical community accepts them.

If you are offered the option of a new procedure for cancer treatment, it is always best to find out beforehand whether your health care provider covers it, and whether a responsible medical authority is performing it.

What Are Off-Label Drugs?

Because cancer treatment drugs are so heavily researched and tested, it is not uncommon for scientists to discover that a drug already approved for one purpose also does something else useful. When this happens, doctors and other health care providers are usually ready to begin using the drug for its new purpose right away, since the safety of the drug has already been established. The use of a drug for something other than what it was approved for is called off-label use.

When this happens, however, the FDA still requires drug manufacturers to undergo an approval process similar to that of a new drug. Again, this can take years, and people with chronic illnesses such as cancer may not be able to wait. As a result, almost one-third of all chemotherapy treatments in the United States use off-label drugs, and one-half of all cancer patients receive an off-label drug some time during their treatment. The biggest problem this poses for cancer patients is with insurance; many times, off-label drugs are not covered. Some states now mandate private insurance plans to pay for off-label, anti-cancer drugs.

Complementary therapies can be useful in helping you improve your quality of life during cancer treatment. In fact, a number of studies have documented that certain types of meditation and relaxation can assist in your mental and physical well-being. On the other hand, while Cancer Care offers no judgment about any types of treatment, we would strongly encourage you to research the risks and benefits of any therapy that replaces standard or healthcare-prescribed cancer treatments because they may prevent you from receiving quality care. If you have any questions about complementary and alternative treatments, the National Institutes of Health has an Office of Alternative Medicine, which can be reached at 888-644-6226.