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Complementary medicines

Have you considered using complementary medicines as part of your breast cancer treatment?

Complementary medicines may be used in addition to conventional medical treatments such as chemotherapy and hormone therapies. Some examples of complementary medicines include:

  • essential oils
  • herbal medicines, including Chinese and Ayurveda medicines
  • homeopathic remedies
  • vitamin and mineral supplements

Should I use a complementary medicine?

Before you take any complementary medicines, it’s important to seek advice from your doctor. It is also important to let all your doctors (cancer specialists, other specialists, GP etc.) know about any complementary medicines you are using. Something else to consider is that using certain complementary or alternative medicines may mean you cannot participate in some clinical trials.

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. For 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. For example, Vitamin D may be recommended for women being treated with an aromatase inhibitor (Arimidex, Femara, Aromasin).

How are complementary medicines labelled?

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) ensures 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.

What to ask about complementary medicines

If you are thinking about taking a complementary medicine, you may like to ask your doctor and your complementary medicine therapist the following questions:

  • How will this 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?

Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any adverse side effects after taking a complementary medicine.

More information

For more information on complementary medicines, you may like to look at: