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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Decisions to use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by male cancer patients: information-seeking roles and types of evidence used

Maggie Evans1, Alison Shaw1, Elizabeth A Thompson2, Stephen Falk3, Pat Turton4, Trevor Thompson1 and Deborah Sharp1*

Author Affiliations

1 Academic Unit of Primary Care, Department of Community-based Medicine, University of Bristol, 25-27 Belgrave Road, Bristol BS8 2AA, UK

2 Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, Cotham Hill, Bristol BS6, UK

3 Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre, Horfield Road, Bristol, BS2 8ED, UK

4 University of the West of England, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS16 1QY, UK

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2007, 7:25  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-7-25

Published: 4 August 2007

Abstract

Background

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is increasingly popular with cancer patients and yet information provision or discussion about CAM by health professionals remains low. Previous research suggests that patients may fear clinicians' 'disapproval' if they raise the subject of CAM, and turn to other sources to acquire information about CAM. However, little empirical research has been conducted into how cancer patients acquire, and, more importantly evaluate CAM information before deciding which CAM therapies to try.

Methods

Qualitative study, comprising semi-structured interviews with 43 male cancer patients of varying ages, cancer type and stage of illness, 34 of whom had used CAM. They were recruited from a range of NHS and non-NHS settings in Bristol, England.

Results

As a result of the lack of CAM information from health professionals, men in this study became either 'pro-active seekers' or 'passive recipients' of such information. Their main information resource was the 'lay referral' network of family, friends and acquaintances, especially females. 'Traditional' information sources, including books, magazines, leaflets and the media were popular, more so in fact than the internet. Views on the internet ranged from enthusiasm or healthy scepticism through to caution or disinterest. CAM information was generally regarded as 'empowering' as it broadened treatment and self-care options. A minority of participants were information averse fearing additional choices that might disrupt their fragile ability to cope. There was general consensus that CAM information should be available via the NHS, to give it a 'stamp of approval', which combined with guidance from informed health professionals, could help patients to make 'guided' choices. However, a small minority of these men valued the independence of CAM from the NHS and deliberately sought 'alternative' information sources and treatment options.

Men were selective in identifying particular therapies to use and sceptical about others, basing their choices on forms of 'evidence' that were personally meaningful: personal stories of individuals who had been helped by CAM; the long history and enduring popularity of some therapies; the plausibility of the mechanism of action; a belief or trust in individual therapies or their providers; scientific evidence. Scientific evidence ranked low in the men's personal decision-making about CAM, while it was recognised as important for NHS support for CAM.

Conclusion

These male cancer patients valued the support and guidance of 'trusted individuals' in making choices about CAM. Trusted health professionals could also play a significant role in helping patients to make informed choices. Any such dialogue must, however, acknowledge the different standards of evidence used by patients and clinicians to evaluate the benefits or otherwise of CAM therapies. Such open communication could help to foster an environment of mutual trust where patients are encouraged to discuss their interest in CAM, rather than perpetuate covert, undisclosed use of CAM with its attendant potential hazards.