A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down

Is complementary care the spoon full of sugar that makes the medicine go down? Prof Carol-Ann Benn elaborates on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

The popular story of Mary Poppins features many well-known songs and sayings, including that of the title above. For many of us, conventional western medicine is not attractive (a bitter taste) and even less so when it comes to cancer. 

Many a YouTube site and internet search will laude the severe side effects of cancer treatment (slash/burn and poison), with alternatives to these treatments being offered that seem more like a spoon full of sugar. 

It would be so nice if the world had a rose-tinted-approach with desired outcomes of cure. A long and healthy life without cancer by just using a tincture of this herb, that plant, and a magic wand instead of a steel blade. Could this be why many children’s medications all have a syrupy sweet flavour but sadly a bitter aftertaste?

First point of order

Why do we take supplements? Some take them because we might perceive ourselves to maybe not have such a healthy lifestyle in terms of what we eat. Maybe we don’t exercise so much and possibly we have unhealthy habits. Or we may take them as part of a programme to improve our health, pick up muscle, lose weight, improve hair and nails, and alter other health issues we may have. We may take supplements as a security blanket because we are fearful of cancer, cardiac disease, cholesterol, old age, or other self-help health reasons. 

The broad term of medicine

We often hear that conventional medical treatment (made in pharmaceutical labs) has many side effects. Everyone has a story, resulting in many of us looking for options to avoid these side effects. Mary Poppins said, “Everything is possible even the impossible.”

The problem with conventional medicine, as I see it, is that the medicine we have been trained to practice has historically been exclusive of other medical training. From A to Z (acupuncture to Z). Not forgetting the middle letters that may include Chinese medicine, homeopathy, traditional medicine, etc. 

As the newly diagnosed, we are faced with our nature, our families, and information we have accessed, plus the stressors of what we have heard about chemotherapy and radiation and losing our breasts. All this is overwhelming, particularly when faced with what seems like a diagnosis that involves treatment that may have hectic side effects. 

Bees in my legs

I am not anti-supplements. In fact, (disclosure) I’m an anxious neurotic supplement junky. Once, I was running to a meeting whilst in Paris, in the freezing cold, all 5km from the hotel (saving the Euro cost of the taxi fee) when I developed a sense of bees in my legs (sensory peripheral neuropathy). Many cancer patients will understand how debilitating this is.

Well I doubled up on my supplements and phoned Charl, thinking I needed a brain scan. Mr Emergency Medicine said, “Stop your supplements. Chillax and prepare for your keynote address.” 

I didn’t listen. In reality, I tripled my supplements. A month later with bees now reaching my waist, I saw a neurologist who examined me from top to bottom, literally, and no diagnosis. Finally, Charl hid my supplements and guess what? My neuropathy went away. 

Choosing the road less travelled

So, you’ve been given the diagnosis and have gone for different opinions and decided heck no! and are going a different route. You are travelling the road less travelled.

Let’s understand the cancer road journey. If you’re travelling, you need a map. Clearly you know your destination. A is the starting point (a diagnosis) and Z is the end of the journey (healthy, safe and fine).

When it comes to a journey, who wants to take the heavy mountain trek of Kilimanjaro? I dream of extreme events but do prefer the easier route. I’m sure you do too. So, what if you’re told you have cancer and need to do the extreme event. Are you up to it or would you prefer the cheat codes? Do those codes actually work? Sadly, mostly not. 

Maybe a better approach to the journey narrative is ensuring you have companions and padkos. You’ll be helped along with complementary medical options, and navigators to guide you so that you don’t get into a bumper bashing for a substance that doesn’t work; sets you back or ensures that you’re a road accident waiting to happen, with the tragic consequence of maybe an unpleasant death. Before you dabble, understand the terminology.

The terminology

Alternative treatments are medicines that are used instead of traditional conventional medicines and include a range of medical therapies that aren’t regarded as ‘orthodox’ by the medical profession.

Complementary care is a range of medical therapies that fall beyond the scope of conventional medicine but may be used alongside it, in the treatment of disease and ill health.

As a mother of a diabetic child and with a host of family with cancer and other medical concerns, and having trained in western conventional medicine, as well as being obsessed with multi-disciplinary checks and balances, I’m not fond of the concept of alternative but I’m happy to negotiate complementary care. 

So, why Mary Poppins? Remember her umbrella, more a parasol. Well, I’ve written on the umbrella of oncology care and talk about oncology treatment being the umbrella that stops one from the acid rain of cancer cells. Because no one dies of cancer in the breast but rather cancers ability to spread, this is why anyone diagnosed with a breast cancer that is invasive will require some form of medical oncology treatment, ranging from cytotoxic treatment (chemotherapy), target therapies (HER2 treatment) and endocrine treatments. And, while these treatments can’t be avoided, Mary Poppins provides the spoonful of sugar: the complementary care to oncology treatment. 

Too good to be true

Let’s not go the alternative route, which is much like “My way or the highway”, and invariably that ends in a crash and then you still need to deal with the consequence of the accident. 

So, when you’re offered the cure to your cancer that isn’t supported by evidence (internationally published best practice data), it’s usually too good to be true. 

Micro-dosing of oncology drugs or herbs, etc. don’t work on their own. Not that I’m dissing herbs and natural medication. Some of our best medication, past and present, started as a natural substance.

Famous medication in their natural form

Here’s a quick historical overview of a famous medication and what it started as in its natural form. Aspirin, one of the first drugs and one of the most researched drugs in the world. 

It started as willow leaf tree in ancient Egypt and Greece and was extracted by a Prof in the 1800 as a bitter active yellow crystal that he names salicin. Then it was found in another flower and then a pharmaceutical chemist, at Bayer, reduced the irritant properties. The name aspirin came from A for acetyl (the mix), “Spir”, the plant known as Spiraea ulmaria (meadowsweet) which yields the salicin, and “in” which was a suffix of drugs at the time. 

And such is the history of many drugs, including many oncology drugs, particularly in the use of breast cancer. Paclitaxel, research on this began in 1962 and the drug is isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (taxus brevifolia), hence the name taxol. 

Our world is in a precarious place with chopping down of forests and a lack of environmental care, so surely, it’s more sensible to take the chemical compound from this tree and mass produce as opposed to destroying all these trees? 


You need to learn how to negotiate the journey of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Let’s divide the journey into active treatment (that extreme event) and remember each journey is different for each person. The below hasn’t been mentioned in any particular order of treatment.


Care around supplements before surgery is critical. Many vitamins and herbal medicines can cause unnecessary bleeding and oozing. This isn’t a chance you want to take. Always disclose every vitamin, supplement, herbal medication, even food that you’re taking in unusual high amounts to improve your health. 


Similarly, with radiation, use of certain anti-oxidants and natural medicines can cause fibrosis and exaggerated burns. So, you need to have a discussion with your radiation oncologist.


Many people want to take herbs and supplements to manage chemo side effects, such as nausea, fatigue and pain. Again, some are beneficial, and others are harmful. The reason why I’m not listing what you can and can’t take is, for certain types of cancers you can take certain natural medication, and certain cancers result in treatment with different oncology drugs, and these drugs can interact with supplements. A prime example is taking massive doses of folate while on the cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, fluorouracil (CMF) regime. This can result in ineffective oncology treatment. 

Another example is medical marijuana which actually contains a fabulous medicinal compound that, as we understand better, can be used for supportive care for many cancers and to alleviate certain symptoms from menopause to pain. The problem is how the active ingredients are made and by whom. This is one of the biggest problems with supplements and alternative medication (no regulation). Another analogy is that of the poppy. This beautiful flower is responsible for both heroin and morphine.  


Many women with breast cancer are placed on endocrine treatment and battle side effects related to menopause. Again, you need to understand what you’re taking as a magic bullet for your arthritis (curcumin) or your flushes (black cohosh). Some of these medicines decrease the effectiveness of endocrine treatment as well as having significant side effects if not taken correctly.


This is the other roads you may travel in your life, with the idea that post cancer you must take many more natural medications to ensure no more cancer.

Take care

Really what I’m saying is work with an integrative (someone who understands both sides) healthcare practitioner or ensure that you have access to a unit that will be open to discussions and has a complementary navigator on hand (Go Kyara and The Pink Parasol Project).

Complementary care isn’t just natural medicines but understanding mind-body practices, manipulative body practices (massage, reflexology, acupuncture), biofield (energy systems), whole medical systems (Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic, homeopathy and naturopathy) and biological medicines (vitamins; herbs, etc.).

So, talk to your docs, engage with reputable sites (mentioned below)and “take care” and “let’s go fly a kite.”

True – Is the information true? You don’t believe every advert for a miracle weight loss; use the same thought process for a miracle cure.

Adaptable – Realise that no matter the treatment regimen you start on, you might need to change based on the results. Be ready to look at a better option if it becomes available.

Knowledge – is power! Do your research, don’t just take the word of the first source. A second opinion, in any form of medicine (alternative, traditional or modern) is a sensible approach.

Effect – Anything you do to your body will affect it, in medicine we call them side effects. How will your complementary care affect you? Will it affect other treatments you have? (Remember some natural medicine will interact badly with modern medicines and together can have serious side effects).

Complementary – Work with your doctors, it’s not an either/or situation.

Assistance – Never do it alone, ask for help, advice and knowledge. Use existing experience.

Realistic – What is the treatment going to do? How does it assist you? Be careful of the word cure.

Expectations – Healing is a journey, there isn’t an end point and even a step in the right direction is progress.

For more information about the safety of herbal preparations see:

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up an internationally accredited, multi-disciplinary breast cancer centre at Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up an internationally accredited, multi-disciplinary breast cancer centre at Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.

MEET THE EXPERT – Prof Carol-Ann Benn

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up internationally accredited, multi-disciplinary breast cancer centres at Helen Joseph Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.