It's life or death. What would you do?

A few weeks ago on Mamamia, we ran a post about alternative therapies (you can read it here) including homeopathy, iridology, reflexology, kinesiology, healing touch therapy, aromatherapy and energy medicine.

Recently, the efficacy of alternative medicine was thrown back into conversation after the tragic death of Jim Stynes. Through his three-year battle with cancer, Jim Stynes followed a course of conventional medicine – chemotherapy, radiotherapy and more than 20 operations – but he was also known to have pursued alternative treatment.

Stynes’ wife Sam says she believes her husband survived for three years after diagnosis “defying oncologists’ expectations” because of a combination of “white-coat” medicine and alternatives. In a 2010 documentary she said that without alternative medicine “he’d be dead. There’s no doubt about it.”

According to news reports:

Jim Stynes

Jim Stynes, the AFL champion who died last week from the melanoma he was diagnosed with in 2009, took up meditation, yoga and reiki massage, ate raw food, underwent coffee enemas and Indonesian smoke therapy and even drank his own urine in the fight to survive.

A survey of more than 400 men receiving cancer treatment in Australian hospitals last year found 62 per cent had used complementary and alternative medicines. But, cancer specialists – while respecting people’s right to try anything to beat their illness – are concerned some treatments, often expensive and unproven, may gain in popularity given Stynes’s fame.

Dr Amanda Hordern is the Director Cancer Information and Support Service at the Cancer Council Victoria. She said it’s difficult to say whether the Indonesian smoke therapy and meditation Jim Stynes pursued had an effect on his life. “Did it make a difference to him? None of us will ever know. None of us will ever know the trajectory he would have had without it,” she said.

Dr Hordern said it’s natural for people to want to try things when they’re faced with cancer – recent studies show as many as 84% of women with breast cancer use complimentary medicine in addition to conventional therapy. She also said that when well-known people publicise their battles – there’s a tendency for people going through the same thing to look to them for guidance.

“We just want people to know that when you’re looking for hope and no one’s giving it to you – you’ll cling to any life boat. Just make sure it’s a reliable vessel. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

On behalf of the Cancer Council Victoria, here’s what Dr Hordern wants people to know: there’s an important difference between complementary therapies and alternative therapies.

Complementary therapies include massage, meditation, acupuncture and other relaxation methods, which are used ALONGSIDE medical treatment like chemotherapy to provide support and methods to relax and cope.

Alternative therapies are unproven remedies, including some herbal and dietary remedies, which are used INSTEAD of medical treatment. “If anyone is considering using an alternative therapy in place of chemotherapy or other medical treatments, it could be harmful,” Dr Hordern says.

Before using complementary therapies, people should talk to doctors and the people treating them – to make sure that all aspects of their cancer care work together.

The Cancer Council Helpline number is 13 11 20.

Have you – or do you know people who have tried complementary or alternative therapies for life-threatening illnesses?