Alternative therapies don't help kids' cancer stress

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Massage, humor therapy and relaxation don’t seem to make life much easier for children with cancer who go through stressful bone marrow transplants, disappointed researchers said Monday.

Earlier studies, while not clear-cut, had suggested alternative treatment might benefit some adult cancer survivors. Doing yoga, for instance, helped women sleep better and have more energy after breast cancer treatment. (See Reuters Health story of May 21, 2010)

“We believed that we had a therapy that was helpful,” said psychologist Sean Phipps, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, who led the government- and foundation-funded study.

But, he said, even state-of-the-art alternative treatment didn’t trump standard supportive care, which includes drugs for nausea and pain as well as psychosocial support for both child and parent.

Phipps said stem cell transplants, from the bone marrow or blood, are some of the toughest treatments for children with cancer. He said they often experience pain, have restricted diets, and are kept largely isolated due to a high risk of infections. “It’s not a picnic,” he said.

To test whether alternative treatment could take the edge off the stress, Phipps and colleagues randomly assigned 178 children to one of three groups. One group received only standard care; another also had massages and humor therapy; in the third group, parents also got massages and were taught how to be more relaxed around their kids.

Using a common measure of quality of life in patients undergoing aggressive treatments, the researchers then tested how the kids fared in each group.

“We failed to demonstrate that our interventions changed those outcomes,” said Phipps. One possible explanation is that standard care was already doing a good job of helping the children, he added, stressing that more research is needed.

Dr. K. Scott Baker, who directs the Survivorship Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said he was surprised by the new findings, which are published in the journal Cancer.

While they don’t jibe with work in adults, he said in an e-mail to Reuters Health, “this study had a very rigorous study design. Many times what we perceive to be true, or of benefit, is not always the case.”

“There are things that they can do to make them feel better,” Phipps said. “You don’t have to sit back and be passive.”

SOURCE: Cancer, online July 12, 2010.