Complementary Therapies for Cancer
You are probably familiar with conventional, evidence-based cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and prescription drugs. Sometimes, in addition to continuing with these conventional therapies, people choose to try complementary treatments such as acupuncture, homeopathy, nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, prayer, meditation, visualization or other less conventional care. When added to the conventional treatments administered by your physician, complementary approaches can help you feel better and manage some of the unpleasant side effects of your illness or your treatment.
Tell your doctor if you are using complementary treatments
More than 70 percent of breast cancer patients, as well as people with other types of cancer, combine complementary treatments with their prescribed treatment plan. Unfortunately, most fail to mention it to their physicians. While most complementary approaches can do little harm and potentially can do much good, some remedies, particularly herbs, might interfere with treatment. Your physician might have a safer way to deal with certain symptoms you are trying to treat with herbs.
Which complementary treatments are helpful for cancer?
While very little research has been done on complementary approaches to cancer treatment, there are several that have been proven to work.
Acupuncture uses tiny needles placed along pathways know in Chinese medicine as meridians. It has been shown to reduce nausea, vomiting, postoperative pain and in some cases, tumor pain.
Meditation, visualization and guided imagery
Studies show that learning any of these techniques decreases pain, improves the ability to fight infection, improves the ability to cope with uncomfortable procedures and in some cases, may slow cancer growth.
Individual prayer encourages a positive, hopeful attitude and can increase relaxation. Attending prayer services has the added benefit of decreasing social isolation. People with friends and strong social support are more likely to cope well with their illnesses. Studies show that having others, even strangers, pray for you also has health benefits.
Studies show that joining a support group can help cancer patients live longer. In fact, one group of women with breast cancer lived twice as long as a similar group that did not receive the same type of support. Support groups also are an excellent way to share information, get referrals to complementary care providers and learn about educational and community resources.
Vitamin and nutritional therapies
A healthy diet can strengthen your immune system, but with the nausea and vomiting that often accompany conventional cancer treatments, eating well can be a challenge. If you are having difficulty eating well-balanced meals, supplementing your diet with vitamins is important. Getting sufficient liquids and increasing fiber can help prevent constipation from chemotherapy. You might want to consult with a registered dietitian to find out what will work best for you. (If you are a Hill Physicians member, ask your physician for a referral to a dietitian or an acupuncturist to treat nausea.)
Can herbs help?
Like prescription drugs, herbs have potent ingredients. While herbs can be helpful in treating some of the side effects of conventional cancer therapy (including thrush, other yeast infections, constipation, diarrhea and fatigue), they also have the potential to interact with your medications or cause side effects. If you are using herbal treatments, talk with your doctor. Stop taking herbs once the symptom you are treating goes away and is unlikely to recur. Remember, herbal treatments for the most part are untested for safety or effectiveness.
Silymarin and ginseng
Silymarin and ginseng are said to reduce liver toxicity from chemotherapy, but ginseng might also increase estrogen levels and therefore is not be appropriate for women using tamoxifen.
Astragalus claims to reduce toxicity from chemotherapy but has caused death in lab animals and should be avoided.
Commonly used in hopes it will prevent colds by strengthening the immune system, echinacea should not be used with the chemotherapy drug methotrexate or the anti-fungal drug ketoconazole. (Studies do not show echinacea to be effective in preventing colds.)
St. John’s Wort
Commonly used for depression, St. John’s Wort can interact with chemotherapy agents and increase surgical bleeding.
How do I find a complementary treatment provider?
Your physician can refer you to a Hill Physicians acupuncturist for pain or nausea and to a registered dietitian for nutritional counseling. Our Health Education department can also help with referrals to support groups, meditation, imagery, relaxation or other training programs. You may also want to ask your support group members for referrals to herbalists, message therapists or other complementary practitioners they have found helpful.
Where can I learn more about complementary treatments for cancer?
The internet is an excellent place to start, however, keep in mind that information you get from the internet might not be reliable. Beware of treatments promising to cure all your symptoms. If an internet article isn’t sponsored by a reputable institution, signed by a person with appropriate academic credentials and supported by several well-designed research studies, talk to your physician or another expert before following that advice.
If you are interested in some of the complementary treatments reviewed above (or others) to help specific symptoms, and you’ve discussed the pros and cons with your physician, go for it!