Setting Misery Aside

Natural side effect relief can make cancer treatment less onerous.

By Claire Sykes

May 2007

Not a clue. That’s what the mammogram had provided about the lump that Nonda Sunday Clark felt in her left breast just months later. By then, in 2002, the cancer had already landed in her lymph nodes. First came chemotherapy and radiation, with their nausea, pain and other side effects. Then the mastectomies. And then, in March 2006, Clark’s waking up with a numb lip was the cancer in her jawbone talking, followed by its return to her lymph nodes. “My doctors here were slow to do tests, and treatment over the months was haphazard,” says the 57-year-old grandmother and senior loan consultant of Bend, Oregon.

Enough was enough. Clark looked for alternatives and found the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, its oncologists working alongside natural medicine practitioners. “The wave of the future for cancer treatment is not alternative therapies used alone, but natural therapies, fully integrated with mainstream medicine in a comprehensive approach,” says the Center’s Mark Gignac, ND (naturopathic doctor). “A number of natural agents can diminish the side effects, and/or improve the effectiveness, of chemotherapy and radiation.”

Teamwork Is the Key

While chemo and radiation attack cancer’s rapidly dividing cells, they also kill healthy ones, especially in the bone marrow, digestive tract, mouth and hair follicles. This causes side effects—including anemia, nausea, mouth sores and hair loss—that compel many patients (perhaps including you or someone you love) to seek natural means of relief.

Before taking the road less traveled, though, make sure your doctor, whether an MD or an ND, has used natural approaches related to cancer. “Many MDs say there are few data supporting the use of natural therapies. That’s simply not true. So are some exaggerated claims from alternative healthcare providers with little experience treating cancer on a daily basis,” says Gignac. “Lack of knowledge and indiscriminate use of some foods, herbs and supplements can possibly interfere with chemotherapy effectiveness, or increase its side effects. Each cancer, depending on the stage and the individual variables, requires a different approach.”

But holistic cancer treatment involves more than just side effect relief. “Because the risk for cancer, and many other diseases, stems from chronic inflammation in the body,” says Gignac, “some of the best natural treatments for cancer are likewise anti-inflammatory in nature.” For Heidi Lucas, ND, who treats Clark at the Center in Seattle, the first line of defense is a diet that fights inflammation to create, as Lucas puts it, “an environment in the body not conducive to cancer growth.”

Organic protein and high-nutrient plant foods form the diet’s foundation. Legumes, grains, nuts and seeds all teem with protein, and join healthful oils (extra virgin olive, coconut, flax seed and high-quality cod liver) in steering the body down non-inflammatory pathways. (If you eat meat, keep it lean and preferably free-range or wild.) Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and kale) are also key. “Their active compounds have been shown to positively affect hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer; the latter also suppressed by the lycopene found in tomatoes,” says Gignac. Foods high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, pomegranates and spinach, help repair damaged cells. Antioxidants abound in green tea, which also contains components that hinder angiogenesis, the process that allows cancer to grow blood vessels.

Along with lots of water, Clark drinks green tea three times a day, but never puts sugar in it—or anywhere in her body. “You can’t avoid glucose,” says Lucas. “The key is to avoid those peaks in blood sugar that come from eating refined foods,” such as white sugar, rice and flour. Instead, choose whole grains and vegetables; their complex carbohydrates convert to glucose slowly. “And balance that glucose with protein and fiber,” she continues. Toss in some turmeric and fresh garlic, which further stabilize blood sugar while providing additional cancer-fighting properties.

Easing Nausea

What if, though, like many chemotherapy patients, you don’t feel like eating? You can blame your lack of appetite on chemo’s most common side effect, nausea. Ginger tea is a natural way to relieve queasiness, although “anti-nausea drugs work best for most people. And if they encourage appetite and exercise, they’re worth the possible side effects,” says Gignac. The main side effect is constipation, which can also result from the cancer itself. Lucas suggests freshly ground flax seeds (which additionally provide anti-cancer lignans). Diarrhea responds best to activated charcoal or cinnamon plus the amino acid L-glutamine, which also soothes mouth sores, and can help alleviate signs of neuropathy (nerve damage).

Living with cancer can wear anyone out. For fatigue, Lucas’s patients take the herbs ashwaganda and chywanprash, which also stimulate immune function. Acupuncture helps, too, by activating the body’s energy paths, or meridians. “The nerves are also activated, which releases existing neurochemicals, allowing the body to adjust to them for healthier balance,” says Weidon Lu, LiAc, an acupuncturist with the Leonard Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies at Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Acupuncture is useful for all stages during a cancer journey—to quell the anxiety and insomnia of first being diagnosed; reduce nausea and vomiting, and also the neuropathy and musculoskeletal pain from chemo and radiation; and speed recovery from surgery.”
“Gentle stretching or walking can have a profound effect on the immune system and hormonal function,” says Gignac, who adds that you can help suppress cancer development with “non-strenuous exercise, just 20 to 30 minutes a day.” Clark employs a treadmill and water aerobics classes. “Both are safer for my bones, which is where the cancer is,” she says. Deep breathing can help allay anxiety and improve immune function; breath focus is a big part of yoga, which relaxes and strengthens the body as it corrals the concentration.

But more than any movement, medicine or meal, “the mind—how we think about our body—impacts our health in ways we can never imagine,” says Gignac. Clark remains as optimistic as she is observant: “For the rest of my life I’ll be evaluating every ailment against the possibility of a recurrence of cancer. Life is never the same once you’re diagnosed. You can live that life in denial—or you can make healthy choices.”

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