Dr. Erin Hofstatter, a young research scientist and breast cancer specialist at Yale’s Smilow Cancer Hospital, often prescribes tamoxifen, raloxifene and similar drugs to her patients. The drugs “reduce your risk (of cancer recurring) by half … but they come with baggage,” she tells her patients, “hot flashes, night sweats, leg cramps, small risk of uterine cancer, small risk of blood clots, small risk of stroke, you have to get your liver tested.”
Hofstatter’s unease with standard treatments for breast cancer has spurred her to seek alternative, safer ways to treat breast cancer. To this end, she has begun a study of black cohosh, in the pill form of an herb from the buttercup family, used for thousands of years by Native Americans to treat menopausal symptoms.
“There’s data to suggest that [black cohosh] is protective,” she said, “both in breast cancer survivors and potentially preventive in women who’ve never had breast cancer, based on a few large observational trials.”
Just as practices like acupuncture and meditation – once considered, at best, nontraditional are now widely used to help patients cope with the side-effects of cancer treatments and other illnesses, natural products – foods (blueberries, walnuts, soy), herbs like black cohosh and plant-based anti-oxidants like capsaicin (which makes hot peppers hot) have become accepted subjects for research. But far from simply embracing these practices or foods, scientists now apply rigorous scientific methods to what are considered non-traditional medications to determine just how effective – or ineffective — they are. A similar scientific focus is being directed at exercise, diet, and meditation.