Integrative therapies for cancer patients

By Sonja Lien, MD Sep 05, 2016

What is Integrative Medicine (IM)?
We’re all familiar with going to the doctor for regular checkups and taking prescription medications to keep us healthy. But while we continue to embrace a western approach to medicine, more medical experts than ever are exploring the many benefits of non-traditional techniques to improve health and outcomes.

Doctors who practice western medicine but also support alternative forms of care are referred to as Integrative Medicine doctors. These medically trained physicians understand the relationship between mind, body and spirit, and believe there’s a delicate balance that needs to be achieved in order to reach optimal health.

An evidence-based practice
Doctors who practice Integrative Medicine always use research and sound evidence-based literature to guide their decision to add alternative therapies to a patient’s cancer treatment. Doctors consider a patient’s lifestyle and environment when choosing nontraditional medical practices that may be of benefit to that particular individual.

From yoga to herbal medicine to acupuncture and meditation, doctors and support staff at Sanford Cancer encourage you to embrace many safe, effective non-traditional health care methods in addition to your regular cancer therapies. Of course, always ask your cancer doctor or nurse if a specific practice or technique is appropriate for your condition and current treatment regimen before venturing into the world of “complementary therapy.”

Mind. Body. Spirit.
In many areas of the world, a balance of these three elements is considered integral to achieving and supporting optimal health. If, for example, you exercise your mind with a crossword every day, and you take care in going to church once a week but you aren’t getting any exercise, your physical body will not be in balance with your mental and spiritual capacity. You will not be as whole of a person as you are capable of being.

Whole personhood begins with connectivity
One  important aspect to keeping the whole-person in balance is connections between others. A 1992 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association that followed 1500 heart patients over a five-year period revealed that of those who were married or had a significant partner, 15 percent were alive five years later. Of those without a spouse or significant other, 50 percent were dead five years later.

When you make a special connection with your doctor, nurse or other person from your cancer support team, you are strengthening your mind, body and spirit because you are communicating, learning and evaluating both internally and externally. We are more than just a body, and each aspect of the whole person, when in connection with others, benefits in a positive manner.

Ways to connect with integrative therapies
There are many traditional and non-traditional integrative therapies that can help you balance and connect your mind, body and spirit. Some of these include:

  • Conventional Medicine
  • Nutritional Medicine
  • Energy Medicine
  • Spiritual Medicine
  • Acupuncture
  • Tai Chi
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Guided Imagery
  • Art therapy
  • Herbal Medicine
  • Music Therapy
  • Mind-Body Medicine
  • Biofeedback
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
  • Massage
  • Chiropractic
  • Exercise
  • Aromatherapy

Integrative therapies for cancer patients
In particular, doctors have identified several non-traditional ways that many cancer patients have found beneficial.

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of needles into very specific points along pathways in the body called meridians.

These meridians are considered energy (chi) pathways, and the use of needles can alter the flow of energy (like removing a blockage) to help restore health.

Many cancer patients say acupuncture has helped many of their symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain and neuropathy
  • Mood disturbances
  • Lymphedema
  • Concerns

Acupuncture may not be safe if the body’s immune system is not working properly or if a bleeding tendency exists.

Many studies show that both fatigue and adherence to treatment regimens are improved when cancer patients exercise regularly:

  • Exercising more than 3 hours vigorously per week can decrease aggressive, advanced, or metastatic prostate cancer risk by 70%.
  • Physical activity and fitness markedly decreased breast cancer risk (both initial and recurrent).
  • Walking 2-3 hours per week decreased risk for breast cancer recurrence by 45 percent.

Yoga and meditation
A breast cancer study that followed patients who added meditation and yoga practice to their treatment regimen showed positive results. The patients experienced:

  • Improved psychological functioning
  • Reduced stress
  • Enhanced coping skills
  • Strong sense of well-being

Energy Medicine
Ancient eastern traditions often refer to different parts of the body as sources of energy called chakras. Each area of the body has its own element. For example, the throat chakra, which is located just below the Adam’s apple, honors communication, while the solar plexus chakra, just below the center of the rib cages, honors the life force.

Chakras are a part of an increasingly popular practice involving energy medicine. Research shows that when practitioners use therapeutic chakra stimulation through therapeutic touch, it increased healthy cell DNA synthesis and decreased mineralization of osteosarcoma cells.

Herbal Medicine
Chamomile for relaxation. Peppermint for a midday boost. Ginger to ease digestion. You may already know that certain herbs help specific ailments.

While there is insufficient scientific evidence supporting herbal medicine, many cancer patients have found the following supplements to be beneficial:

  • Ashwaganda – immune-boosting, sedative, stress reducer
  • Calendula – reduce radiation dermatitis
  • Cat’s Claw – immune-boosting, anticancer effects
  • Ginger – nausea-reducing
  • Turmeric (curcumin) – many anticancer effects, including increased natural cell death

It is best to get your total nutrition from food; a pill will never take the place of healthy food choices. Occasionally, usually due to a health problem with consuming certain foods, someone may find it beneficial to take a supplement (such as a vegetarian with need for iron tablets), but most often, supplements are to be considered inferior to getting the nutrient from its natural food source.

  • Supplements often do not carry the same amount of benefits that consuming foods with the same ingredients does.
  • Supplement quality and consistency may be inconsistent and is not regulated by a federal agency like the FDA.
  • Some antioxidants and other supplements may actually decrease the effectiveness of conventional treatment.
  • Non-food soy extracts many interfere with Tamoxifen cancer drug
  • Many supplements have side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, thyroid problems, rash/allergy over time, stomach problems, dizziness, blood pressure med interactions, autoimmune stimulation.

Getting medicine from food
There is little evidence that shows any particular diet is an effective treatment for cancer, although there is a lot of evidence that it can aid in prevention and decrease recurrence. Following the below two guidelines will produce a fairly good anti-cancer food plan:

  • Embrace a plant-based, whole foods diet
  • Avoid or limit processed food and meat-based foods

Herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables contain numerous cancer-fighting elements. For example, garlic is possibly effective in preventing colorectal and gastric cancer, though not in supplement form. Broccoli, cauliflower and kale are known to reduce cancer by ridding the body of toxins.

Best of all worlds
Hand-washing was once considered a radical way to prevent the spread of disease. So while a great deal of these integrative methods may seem foreign and intimidating, doctors at Sanford want you to be open to new ideas and approaches to your health, especially when facing a cancer diagnosis.

Look for the evidence of benefit and potential for benefit and weigh it against risk for harm, and always ask someone on your trusted medical team at Sanford about how integrative medicine may benefit you.


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