The terms complementary and alternative medicine refer to medical practices or products that are not considered standard forms of care. If the method or remedy is used in combination with conventional medical care, it is called complementary. If it is used instead of conventional care, it is called alternative.
When it comes to a potentially serious problem such as skin cancer, it should be obvious that patients who use unconventional methods instead of scientifically based methods of prevention or treatment are doing themselves a disservice. However, the use of unconventional methods in addition to conventional methods is not necessarily harmful. Patients should be sure, though, to tell their doctors about any complementary treatments that they would like to try. Some of these methods may have side effects or may interfere with conventional care. For example, some vitamins can have serious adverse effects when taken in excessive doses, and some herbs may interact with medicines, including medicines used to treat cancer.
Vitamins and Antioxidants
One complementary approach to preventing skin cancer involves the use of vitamins C and E to prevent sunburn, which is associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. In one study, people who took supplements of vitamins C and E took longer to develop sunburn when exposed to the sun than those who did not take these vitamins. Scientists have speculated that the protective effect of vitamins C and E may be due to their antioxidant effect. However, studies have also shown that another antioxidant nutrient, selenium, is not effective in preventing skin cancer and may even increase skin cancer risk.
People who want to try taking vitamins C and E to reduce their risk of skin cancer should use these vitamins in addition to standard methods of protection from the sun, such as sunscreen and protective clothing, not instead of standard methods. It is also important to report the use of vitamins to your doctor, just as with any other form of complementary medicine, and to remember that excessive doses of vitamins can have harmful side effects.
Although the science is not conclusive, there is some evidence that certain foods, including fish, beans, and a variety of vegetables, including beta-carotene-rich vegetables such as carrots and pumpkin; cruciferous vegetables such as chard, cabbage, and broccoli; and vegetables that contain vitamin C may be helpful in preventing skin cancer. Many of these foods are naturally rich in antioxidant nutrients, and of course, eating them in normal amounts is not harmful.
Herbs and Other Plant-Based Remedies
Several herbs have been suggested to be of value in preventing skin cancer, particularly herbs that have antioxidant effects, such as bilberry, hawthorn, turmeric, and ginkgo.
Extracts of both black and green tea have been investigated in scientific studies for possible protective effects against skin cancer.
There is some evidence that lignans, which are found in soy, flaxseed, and certain other foods, may be of value in preventing the spread of melanomas and other types of cancer.
Yucca root, a plant remedy often used to treat skin conditions, is sometimes recommended for use in skin cancer, and there is at least one study in experimental animals suggesting that it might be helpful.
The nightshade plant was traditionally used, both by Europeans and by Native Americans, as a natural treatment for cancer, including skin cancer. However, it is now known that this plant has dangerous effects if used internally. The leaves are still used externally in some instances, however. Another plant sometimes recommended as an external treatment for skin cancer is bloodroot.
For Kaposi sarcoma, a type of skin cancer associated with HIV infection, some naturopaths recommend topical treatment with a combination of lemon balm, turmeric, and a formula containing a mixture of herbs and potassium iodide.
As with all types of complementary medicine, the use of herbs or other plant-based remedies should be reported to your physician, and these remedies should not be substituted for scientifically proven conventional treatments.
The use of homeopathic remedies is common among patients with melanoma. This type of therapy has not been proven effective, but some researchers believe that it is worthy of serious scientific investigation.