Dr Eric Winer, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University and director of the Breast Oncology Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told the meeting in Hamburg that it was crucial that more, properly conducted studies should be carried out on complementary and alternative therapies (CAMs).
"Issues of safety with CAMs are critical," he said. "But in many cases, extensive safety evaluation has not been undertaken. Moreover, relatively few CAMs have been tested in conjunction with standard treatments and this is a serious problem. For instance, some CAMs, such as St John's Wort, have been shown to have important and potentially detrimental interactions with standard drugs. Just because a CAM is not known to cause harm does not mean that it is safe, particularly when administered in conjunction with standard treatments. In addition, some studies have shown that the quality and composition of many CAM products varies substantially.
"In the United States and many other countries, there is a rigorous process by which standard medications are evaluated and licensed, but most complementary therapies do not go through this rigorous process. As an increasing number of patients turn to these therapies it is even more important that they should be evaluated properly."
He said that women use CAMs for a number of reasons, "including a desire to improve quality of life, take control over their illness, relieve symptoms and improve overall survival". Some studies had found that women who used CAMs were more likely to have physical and/or psychological symptoms compared to non-users.