Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a term assigned to treatments people choose outside the conventional medical approaches provided by their medical or osteopathic doctors. The conventional approaches often are referred to as allopathic, Western or mainstream medicine.
A 2007 survey showed that at least 38 percent of Americans choose CAM [source: NCAM]. Their reasons -- and the goals prescribed to various CAM therapies -- vary. Many feel that CAM therapies are more natural and address the body and mind together. Alternative therapies take the place of allopathic ones to treat diseases or relieve symptoms, and complementary therapies are meant to be used along with -- or in addition to -- allopathic therapies. Patients may choose CAM therapies for any number of diseases and conditions, but these types of treatments and their goals can be demonstrated with treatment of cancer patients, an area of medicine that has embraced use of CAM.
Let's say, for example, that a patient with cancer chooses to undergo chemotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy is a mainstream, or allopathic, cancer treatment. Chemotherapy can cause many side effects that are uncomfortable and make quality of life much worse for patients while undergoing treatment. Patients might choose acupuncture or another complementary treatment while having chemotherapy to help them help handle the unwanted side effects. Choosing an alternative therapy means that the patient chooses to treat his or her cancer with this therapy instead of chemotherapy or some other suggested allopathic treatment [source: National Cancer Institute].
A new term has emerged in cancer and other care called integrative medicine. It combines allopathic and complementary care, but does not replace mainstream care [source: MD Anderson Cancer Center]. Integrative medicine focuses on the patient's entire being, not just targeting treatment of a tumor or other isolated disease. It also may address broader issues regarding wellness and disease prevention. When CAM is part of an integrative medicine program, the allopathic and CAM practitioners can work together for the benefit of the patient. This is much better for the patient and is preferable to a patient "going behind a doctor's back" to seek CAM therapies that could be ineffective or could somehow cause interactions when mixed with allopathic ones.
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