Two College of Nursing and Public Health professors find some surprising answers.

YogaPrayer and exercise had the highest perceived effectiveness.

In treating cancer, fire is generally used to fight fire. Common medical interventions—chemotherapy, radiation and surgery—can cause as much discomfort as the disease itself. Many cancer patients understandably pursue other avenues to healing—herbs, acupuncture, meditation, prayer, diet, etc. Yet, according to Shan Liu, Ph.D., and Yiyuan Sun, D.N.Sc., assistant professors at the College of Nursing and Public Health, few studies agree on the prevalence or effectiveness of these so-called complementary and alternative medicines or CAMs. And in most large studies, the patterns among minorities, such as first-generation Chinese immigrant women, are impossible to tease out.

Dr. Liu and Dr. Sun are working to change this status quo and have already completed a pilot study of CAM use and perceived effectiveness among Chinese- American cancer survivors in Queens and Brooklyn , New York. Dr. Liu and Dr. Sun surveyed 97 Chinese-American women on their use of CAMs while being treated for cancer and found that the more symptoms the women experienced, the more likely they were to use CAMs. The most popular CAM was exercise, such as walking, followed by the herb lingzhi, vitamins and spiritual or faith therapy—i.e., prayer. Of these, prayer and exercise had the highest perceived effectiveness.

Dr. Liu and Dr. Sun’s study showed a greater prevalence of CAM usage among this segment—87 percent—compared with other U.S. studies but lower rates than studies conducted in China, which have shown rates of 97 to 100 percent.

Traditional Chinese philosophies—i.e., how you live makes you healthy or unhealthy—may be behind the higher use of CAMs in this population, according to Dr. Liu and Dr. Sun. They also say that knowing what questions to ask is crucial. For example, lingzhi—which is less well-known in the West—can potentially interact with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

This piece appeared in the Erudition 2014 edition.

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