Potential health risks of complementary alternative medicines in cancer patients

Br J Cancer. 2004 Jan 26;90(2):408-13. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6601560.


Many cancer patients use complementary alternative medicines (CAMs) but may not be aware of the potential risks. There are no studies quantifying such risks, but there is some evidence of patient risk from case reports in the literature. A cross-sectional survey of patients attending the outpatient department at a specialist cancer centre was carried out to establish a pattern of herbal remedy or supplement use and to identify potential adverse side effects or drug interactions with conventional medicines. If potential risks were identified, a health warning was issued by a pharmacist. A total of 318 patients participated in the study. Of these, 164 (51.6%) took CAMs, and 133 different combinations were recorded. Of these, 10.4% only took herbal remedies, 42.1% only supplements and 47.6% a combination of both. In all, 18 (11.0%) reported supplements in higher than recommended doses. Health warnings were issued to 20 (12.2%) patients. Most warnings concerned echinacea in patients with lymphoma. Further warnings were issued for cod liver/fish oil, evening primrose oil, gingko, garlic, ginseng, kava kava and beta-carotene. In conclusion, medical practitioners need to be able to identify the potential risks of CAMs. Equally, patients should be encouraged to disclose their use. Also, more research is needed to quantify the actual health risks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Complementary Therapies / adverse effects*
  • Complementary Therapies / statistics & numerical data*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Interactions
  • Echinacea
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Herbal Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Phytotherapy / adverse effects
  • Product Labeling
  • Risk Assessment