For 18 months, Mario Menelly has been taking nutritional supplements called PC-SPEs to help his advanced prostate cancer, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts. He took them instead of the powerful hormones his doctors wanted to prescribe.
"I was comfortable with an herbal preparation. I was comfortable with alternatives," said Menelly.
But research reported Wednesday found that he is, in fact, taking hormones.
Menelly was basically taking something as potent as a regular drug. He was taking something with potent estrogenic activity -- or hormonal activity. "Just as if he were taking prescription estrogen," says Dr. Robert Di Paola of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
And with estrogen-like side effects such as loss of libido, breast tenderness and blood clotting, come new concerns about the exploding alternative medicine market.
"Almost all alternative remedies have in common the fact that they haven't been adequately tested and some of them may be very harmful," says New England Journal of Medicine's Dr. Marcia Angell.
Dietary supplements were exempted from FDA regulation in 1994 and unless they make a claim for a health benefit, there are few rules to live by. What's on the label doesn't necessarily reflect what's inside in quality or quantity...many patients are getting less or more than they bargained for.
For example, a survey in California found dozens of supplements contained drug compounds and even contaminants like lead and arsenic.
The supplement industry admits that it's not perfect, but they are adamant that altrernative medicine has its proper place.
"There are always exceptions to the rule, but herbs and botanicals and dietary supplements are generally safe," says Jill Ellis of the National Nutritional Foods Association.
Ironically, the drug-like effects of PC-SPEs have shown real promise in treating prostate cancer and new studies are underway.
"While it might be untested and unproven, as far as I am concerned, it's saving my life," says Menelly.
However, there is little money to look into the thousands of other herbs on the market, leaving unknown their potential benefits -- and risks.
Written by John Roberts
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