What are complementary medicines?
Complementary medicines are products that are used in addition to conventional medical treatments such as chemotherapy and hormone therapies. Some examples of complementary medicines include:
- vitamin and mineral supplements
- herbal medicines, including Chinese and Ayurveda medicines
- homeopathic remedies
- essential oils
Should I use a complementary medicine?
BCNA suggests you carefully consider the use of any complementary medicines and seek advice from a member of your medical team about any medicines or supplements you are using or considering.
Some complementary medicines can cause unwanted side effects. They can also interfere with prescription medicines, including breast cancer medicines, and can make your breast cancer treatments less effective. Fox example, vitamin C supplements can interfere with some chemotherapy treatments, and St John's Wort can reduce the effectiveness of tamoxifen and some chemotherapies.
Sometimes your doctor may suggest you use a complementary medicine. Vitamin D may be recommended for women being treated with Aromatase Inhibitors (Arimidex, Femara, Aromasin), for example.
Before starting any complementary medicine, you may like to talk to a member of your medical team to discuss any possible effects it may have on your breast cancer treatment and health. It is also important to let all your doctors (cancer specialists, other specialists, GP etc) know about any complementary medicines you are using.
How are complementary medicines labelled?
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is the organisation that is responsible for ensuring that all medicines available in Australia are safe to use. Medicines that are available for supply in Australia are given one of two codes by the TGA, Aust L or Aust R, which is listed on the product label.
Medicines marked with an Aust R code are 'registered' with the TGA and include prescription medicines and some over the counter products, and are tested for safety, quality and effectiveness.
Most complementary medicines will have an Aust L code, which means that they are 'listed' with the TGA and have been assessed for their safety and quality, but not for their effectiveness.
Remedies prepared or mixed specially for you and dispensed by a complementary therapist will not have an Aust L or an Aust R code. However, they should have a label with the date, dosage, directions and safety information if applicable.
Questions to ask about complementary medicines
If you are considering taking a complementary medicine, you may like to ask your doctor and your complementary medicine therapist the following questions:
- How do you think this complementary medicine will help me?
- Do you know if this complementary medicine will interfere with any of the medicines I am taking or plan to take?
- Is it okay to take this complementary medicine at the same time as my other medicine, or should I take it at a different time?
- Will I have any side-effects from this complementary medicine?
- What do I do if I experience any of the side effects?
- How long should I use this complementary medicine and how will I know if it is working?
- Who will provide me with the complementary medicine?
- What qualification, training and experience does the complementary medicine therapist have?
- What is the cost of the complementary medicine?
- Is the complementary medicine covered by private health insurance?
What should I do if I experience any side-effects?
If you experience any adverse side-effects after taking a complementary medicine, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
- The My Journey Kit Information Guide has a section on complementary and alternative therapies.
- BCNA's position statement on Complementary and Alternative Therapies.
- The Beacon Issue 61 contains an article about dietary supplements and precautions to take.
- The Beacon Issue 58 contains an article on the difference between complementary and alternative medicines and therapies.
- The National Prescribing Service (NPS) contains some information on complementary medicines on their website.
- The Cancer Council Australia's website contains a fact sheet on complementary and alternative medicines and therapies.
- The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGS) website contains a section on the regulation of complementary medicines in Australia.
- The National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) contains a number of fact sheets on their website that provide comprehensive information on complementary medicines.