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Fox Chase Cancer Center Advises Consumers to Talk to Their Doctors about Herbs

PHILADELPHIA (May 23, 2000) -- Many Americans use nutritional supplements and herbal remedies to promote good health and to take care of various ailments.� Although these products are sold over-the-counter and are advertised as "natural", consumers should talk to their doctors about what they are taking, mainly because of possible interactions when taken with other drugs.

"Many cancer patients know to inform their primary care physician and specialists of their prescription medications, but it is also just as important to include any herbs, vitamins, or supplements in that list," says John Martinez, a physical therapist at Fox Chase Cancer Center and manager of Complete Care, Fox Chase's Complementary Medicine Program.

Prescription and over-the-counter medicines contain only the purified active ingredients, which have been studied and proven for safety and effectiveness.� Herbs, however, include the entire plant or plant part.� They are not required to undergo examination by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and most herbs have not been formally tested for side effects.� No standardization process exists to ensure that the producers of herbal remedies maintain consistency in the source and amount of the ingredients used.

"The primary concern here is the potential for interactive effects between herbs and the patient's medications," explains Martinez.� "Some herbs may multiply the effect of cancer medications; others may void the effect of prescription medicine.� There is also the possibility of adverse reactions to herb/prescription drug combinations."

For example, evidence suggests that ginseng and some soy products appear to increase the growth rate of breast cancer tumors that are estrogen-receptor positive.� St. John's Wort, an anti-depressant herb, may intensify the effect of Zyban, an anti-depressant drug prescribed as a cancer prevention measure to smokers who want to quit.� The FDA has also issued a recent warning about St. John's Wort because it appears to interfere with a long list of prescription medications, including some cancer chemotherapies.

Cancer patients who want to play a more active role in their treatment may be likely to use herbs purchased at the local health food store.� Although not scientifically proven effective, these over-the-counter remedies may provide relief from symptoms of the disease and from the side effects of treatment.� No matter what the product might claim, herbs should not be expected to cure or slow the growth of the cancer, according to Martinez.

Open communication is a key element of the doctor-patient relationship. When both doctor and patient have all the information they need, they are able to make the best and most appropriate decisions regarding treatment.

"Herbs can be taken safely when doctors are informed about the products their patients are using," explains Martinez. "It is the health provider's responsibility to ask the patient about herb use and to create an environment in which patients feel comfortable talking about their health and lifestyle."

While doctors and other health professionals concentrate on providing the latest and best cancer treatments, cancer patients can participate in their own care in a number of ways. Martinez recommends examining one's diet. "Incorporate good nutritional habits into your lifestyle. See a dietician and talk to your doctor. Improving your diet is a very good start to improving and maintaining good overall health."

Complementary medicine provides patients with therapies that accompany medical care. It addresses quality of life and the well-being of the whole individual. Complete Care, Fox Chase Cancer Center's Complementary Medicine Program, addresses the physical, psychological and emotional needs of cancer patients both during and after treatment. The program offers safe therapies that are designed to help people cope with treatment side effects, stress, changing body image and functional problems requiring cancer-specific rehabilitation medicine and care. Popular services include fatigue management, hypnotherapy, lymphedema management, nutrition and yoga. Martinez advises that cancer patients interested in complementary medicine should first talk with their doctors.

Complete Care's services are available to Fox Chase patients and also to patients receiving primary cancer treatment elsewhere. For more information about Complete Care at Fox Chase Cancer Center or to make an appointment, please call 215-728-7000.

The Complete Care library also has a selection of books, videos, audio tapes and computer access with information on herbs as well as nutrition and other complementary therapies. Cancer patients, survivors and their families are encouraged to take advantage of these resources, ask questions and discuss any concerns with the Complete Care health providers as well as with their own doctors.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, one of the nation's first comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute in 1974, conducts basic and clinical research; programs of prevention, detection and treatment of cancer; and community outreach. For more information about Fox Chase activities, visit the Center's web site at www.fccc.edu.


Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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