CAM and cancer therapies
Mental Health & Self-Care Print

Oncologists See the Benefit of Complementary Therapies

A cancer diagnosis used to mean chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or some combination of the three. But today oncologists are also including complementary therapies in their patients’ treatment plans, and their patients’ are responding. 

Improving quality of life

Dr. Gary Deng, Integrative Medicine Specialist at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said in an article for Medscape that although complementary therapies can’t be relied on to shrink a cancerous tumor, if combined with chemotherapy or radiation, they “may improve a patient’s quality of life and quite possibly his or her survival.”

And this is important. Cancer patients often feel they’ve lost control over their lives. Their bodies are being assaulted by chemotherapy or radiation, leaving them exhausted, weak and totally at the mercy of their doctors. Complementary therapies give them something tangible they can do to help with their care. And studies have shown these therapies may lessen the side effects of cancer treatment such as anxiety, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, pain, sleeping difficulty, and stress. They may also help stimulate the immune system and perhaps reduce the amount of medication needed. This not only gives patients back some of the control they’ve lost, but it gives them some hope. And even if the cancer cannot be eradicated, these therapies provide patients with compassionate care and comfort.

A sign of the times

Combining complementary therapies with traditional ones is a new form of healthcare called integrative medicine. It’s more of a holistic approach to health; treating the whole patient — mind, body and spirit — not just the disease. For example, an integrative oncologist may develop a treatment plan for a patient that includes not only chemotherapy, but therapies such as lifestyle and diet change, nutrients and botanicals, acupuncture, homeopathy, yoga, hypnosis, reiki, healing touch and qigong.

If this sounds a bit unusual, it is. These therapies were once seen as nothing more than archaic nonsense by modern medical professionals. But times are changing. Patient demand and studies showing actual benefits have helped win over many hardened critics. As a result, institutions such as The Dana Farber Institute, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, National Cancer Institute, and Cancer Treatment Centers of America, to name just a few, now support an integrated cancer care model.  And to give more credence to the studies, hospitals with complementary medicine departments are now leading research into these therapies, using the exact same standards they would in testing drugs or surgery. 

Use with caution

Of course this acceptance doesn’t mean all alternative methods have the green light. Where many studies have shown acupuncture eases chemotherapy nausea and others suggest acupuncture and massage may reduce pain, other therapies are not as well researched as yet. Still, if a treatment is unproven and the risks are very, very low, doctors may be open to them. It’s a matter of whether or not the potential benefits outweigh the risks. 

It gets a bit trickier when it comes to herbal and botanical supplements. Despite their wide popularity, few have been shown to be either safe or effective against cancer. On the other hand, some have been shown to be both ineffective and unsafe. The fact is there hasn’t been enough research done on them. Until there is, experts urge caution.

This word of caution pertains not only to doctors, but their patients as well. According to Poison Control, there are nearly 1500 documented interactions between drugs, herbal medicines, and dietary supplements, causing a wide variety of harmful effects. This is why it’s so important to keep your health providers informed of what medicines or alternative therapies you may be taking. 

Still, many patients don’t inform their doctors, and some even choose alternative therapies over conventional treatments. This is a growing concern for physicians, especially oncologists. Although complementary therapies — backed by sufficient evidence — can and do help cancer patients, at this time there is no magic bullet for cancer.