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Cancer Patients Should Tell Their Doctor About Dietary Supplement Use

Many cancer patients use dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals and herbs or other botanicals but often don’t tell their doctor, according to a University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) report.

Dr. Victor Sierpina, professor of family medicine, UTMB, writes that the gap in communication can happen when patients believe that their doctors are indifferent or negative toward their use of these supplements. In the report the doctor said as a result patients may find information about dietary supplements from unreliable sources, exposing themselves to unneeded risks.

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Since information on these dietary supplements is limited, researchers from the UTMB describe a practical patient-centered approach to managing dietary supplement use in cancer care in a review article, noting that improving the communication between patient and doctor in this area is critical. The article was published in the September edition of Current Oncology Reports.

“Doctors need to understand why patients with cancer use dietary supplements in the first place. Patients tend to use these supplements because they want to do everything possible to feel hopeful, empower themselves, enhance the body’s natural defenses, use less toxic treatments, or reduce side effects of mainstream treatments,” said Dr. Sierpina. “In fact, most patients choose to use dietary supplements to improve their quality of life rather than seeking a cure for their disease.”

According to the report, globally, people spent an estimated $96 billion on dietary supplements in 2012 and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) devoted $855 million during fiscal years 2009-2011 to research on this topic. Despite ongoing research, little is known about the effectiveness of dietary supplements in cancer care. Regardless, many studies have confirmed that most patients undergoing cancer therapy use self-selected forms of complimentary and integrative medicine such as dietary supplements.

UTMB reported that when doctors fail to communicate effectively with patients who are using dietary supplements, they may lose the patient’s trust and the patient may gather information from a variety of places, such as advice from friends and relatives or the Internet. At times this information is not correct and occasionally can be dangerous.

Dr. Sierpina and fellow author Dr. Moshe Frenkel, clinical associate professor of family medicine, UTMB, emphasize that doctor-patient communication is an interactive process, not merely a focused dialogue of questions and answers, and the doctor who is open to patient inquiries and is aware of subtle, nonverbal messages can create an environment of safety in which a patient feels protected.

“Doctors must use a sensitive approach when communicating with a patient who has an interest in the use of dietary supplements,” said Dr. Frenkel. “A communication approach that fosters a collaborative relationship that includes ample information exchange, empathy and compassion, responding to emotional needs and managing uncertainty can lead to informed decisions about dietary supplement use.”

According to both doctors this discussion is crucial in building a personalized treatment plan that is safe and based on reliable information.

For more information, visit www.utmb.edu.