Be careful using alternative treatments

Alternative Medicine. Rosemary, mint, chamomille, thyme in a marble mortar. Essential oils and herbal supplements.


Long delays in obtaining medical appointments might have some of us turning to Alternative therapies – but are these effective?

Recently I have been reading two books on this subject, which makes many people hot under the collar – either for or very anti the treatments.

When he was Prince of Wales, King Charles showed an interest in this field.  However, after I attended a high-level conference, sponsored by him, with glossy presentations about Alternative medicine, I found lecturers were speaking of treatments with no scientific evidence, clinical trials etc. as backup.  When asked to provide statistics, trials data, etc., the lecturers were vague. So I walked out.

I was not alone.


Many people mix Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, or put these under the heading of CAM.   The NHS website says

  • When a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary”.
  • When a non-mainstream practice is used instead of conventional medicine, it’s considered an “alternative”.

There can be overlap between these categories.

Wishy-washy,  I prefer to choose Complimentary  treatments that have scientific evidence to back them up, leaving Alternative therapies to those who need them,

The other side of the argument

Thinking this over, I began to realise that not everyone needed or depended on scientific evidence.  For some, just the chance to lie back and be the focus of a therapist’s attention for an hour was what they needed. The roller coaster of cancer treatment can leave you reeling – wanting to get off and have some ‘me-time’.

I relied on Complimentary Therapies, such as massage, with evidence to back them up – leaving the alternative therapies to those who need to be the focus of attention, but aren’t necessarily concerned with science.

CRUK, Macmillan, Breast Cancer Now etc. have excellent information about Complimentary therapies and sometimes provide these for free. I also found helpful information on American hospital websites, such as Dana-Farber Cancer center’s website

Wish-washy evidence

Many will be aware that our new King has expressed an interest in alternative forms of medicine,  I have followed the discussions about this with interest, but must confess that, like many, I am not convinced. I repeat I am not talking about Complimentary Therapies such as massage, pilates, yoga and those Complimentary therapies with proven benefits – but those therapies that are vague about providing scientific proof.

To be sure I was being fair, I tried out many of these Alternative therapies for myself  – from Acupuncture to Reiki.  None of them worked for me.

It was only those that came under the heading of ‘Complimentary’ that I found ofFree Topless Woman Lying on Bed Getting Massage Stock Photobenefit; e.g. massage is often provided as standard at European hospitals.

Massage has been around as a healing therapy since the time of Hippocrates, and is extensively used in European hospitals, with better post-cancer outcomes than we have.

Michael Baum

Googling (as one does) I was reminded of meeting  Michael Baum, who had headed the biggest International cancer trials group in history (ATAC).  He has been awarded numerous accolades from abroad,  and knows his subject :  breast cancer.  As emeritus professor of surgery at University College London, Baum says he would like to see alternative medicine banned in the NHS, and has described homeopathy as a “cruel deception”, 

Michael wasn’t afraid of confrontation with Prince Charles and other proponents of homeopathic and alternative medicine. He wrote a book, Breast Beating, in which he explains just how and why he holds such strong opinions and beliefs, both from a professional and personal point.  It is a good read – in layman’s rather than medical language – and what amused me was his ironic ‘dedication’ to Prince Charles – whom he takes to task for meddling.

In a letter to the Prince, Michael rebuked him for his stance on alternative medicine, saying  “The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research… Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth”.

A contentious meeting

Europa Donna had invited the great and the good (and me) to a meeting to discuss alternative medicine.  There was an eminent professor flown in from Scandinavia, plus Michael Baum, to discuss alternative medicine.  The meeting was electrifying – within a few minutes, the gloves were off, as the Scandinavian visitor and Michael heatedly questioned each other.  At one moment I did wonder if we were going to witness a boxing match, but it calmed down.

Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst

These are two scientists who have written another good read – a book called Trick or Treatment – all about Alternative medicine ‘on trial’.

They say “science employs experiments, observations, trials, arguments and discussion in order to arrive at an objective consensus on the truth”.  In contrast, so much Alternative medicine depends on opinions – often gathered together by a PR company.

Frankly, if I am going to have treatments done on my body, I would rather there had been trials and observations carried out before this is tried on me.  I don’t want to rely on someone saying “it worked for me”.

Opinions can be very strong: I was invited by a group of medical students to hear a debate about alternative medicine with Simon Singh as the main speaker.  Again, ‘verbal boxing gloves’ were in evidence; it was a pity we were denied a fascinating debate when Simon was shouted down – even though he was a guest.

Back home, I bought Trick or Treatment and thoroughly enjoyed its explanations about Herbal Medicine, Homeopathy, Acupuncture, etc,  Alternative Medicine fans will hate it, but I really enjoyed the way the authors weren’t afraid to challenge some thorny subjects including Feng Shui.  I leven laughed out loud at their explanations,


Much as I deplore the way some people are keen to promote alternative treatments even though there is a lack of scientific evidence, I do acknowledge the ‘feel good factor ‘plays a part in recovery.  If having someone wave pretty crystals across your eyes floats your boat, then good luck to you.

I just think NHS funding should be reserved for those therapies that have scientifically-proven benefits for everyone. And think the NHS should take note of what is being done in Europe, where they have been carrying out research since the time of Hippocrates.