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The use of herbal medicines by people with cancer: a qualitative study

Christine Gratus1, Sue Wilson1*, Sheila M Greenfield1, Sarah L Damery1, Sally A Warmington1, Robert Grieve2, Neil M Steven3 and Philip Routledge4

Author Affiliations

1 Primary Care Clinical Sciences, The University of Birmingham, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

2 Arden Cancer Centre, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, Clifford Bridge Road, Coventry, CV2 2DX, UK

3 Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

4 Department of Pharmacology, Therapeutics and Toxicology, Cardiff University, Heath Park, Cardiff, CF14 4XN, UK

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2009, 9:14  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-9-14

Published: 14 May 2009



Between 7% and 48% of cancer patients report taking herbal medicines after diagnosis. Because of the possibility of unwanted side effects or interactions with conventional treatments, people with cancer are generally advised to tell the professionals treating them if they are taking any form of medication, including herbal medicines and supplements. Studies suggest that only about half do so and that the professionals themselves have at best very limited knowledge and feel unable to give informed advice. This study is intended to inform the future development of information resources for cancer patients, survivors and healthcare professionals including tools for use before or during consultation to make it easier for patients to mention, and for healthcare professionals to ask about, use of herbal medications.


This is a three-phase study. In phase 1, a systematic review of the literature on self-medication with herbal medicines among UK populations living with cancer will establish the current evidence base on use of herbal medicine, sources of information, characteristics and motivations. This will allow us to better understand what aspects need further investigation and inform the topic guide for a qualitative study (phase 2). Six focus groups of six to eight cancer patients who have used at least one herbal preparation since diagnosis will explore behaviour, beliefs, knowledge, information sources and needs in an informal conversational setting.

Informed by the findings of the systematic review and qualitative study, in phase 3 we will construct and pilot a questionnaire for a future large-scale survey to quantify and prioritise people's beliefs, needs and information preferences.


Despite known interactions with conventional cancer treatments and contraindications for some herbal remedies with specific cancers, reliable information resources for patients are very limited. Identifying cancer patients' information needs and preferences is the first step in creating a suitable resource for both the public and the professionals advising them.