Easing the Effects
Standard cancer treatment can save lives, but its side effects can be hard to bear.
That’s why patients are turning to integrative medicine for relief.
By Beverly Burmeier
"Traditional medicine helped me survive. Alternative medicine helped me thrive.” That’s how Denise DeSimone, author of From Stage IV to Center Stage (Balboa Press), sums up her healing philosophy. The motivational speaker, singer, Reiki master and certified reflexologist needed all the help she could get when diagnosed with stage IV throat and neck cancer at age 49. She credits Reiki with easing nausea and helping her get into a state of calm and peace so that her body could use the healing energy released during therapeutic sessions.
Cancer treatment is no picnic. Strong medications and radiation are used to kill aberrant cells, but resulting side effects, such as nausea and fatigue, can be seriously debilitating. This helps explain why two-thirds of cancer patients decide to augment standard medical treatment with different forms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to improve their quality of life. Many CAM therapies help manage symptoms that occur with treatment, and these practices are now being combined with conventional treatments in a concept known as integrative medicine.
Treatments and Discomforts
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are designed to destroy cancer cells. In the process they can damage normal cells too, which may cause symptoms that can vary depending on where the cancer is located and what drug or form of radiation (or therapy combination) is used. Some people suffer few or no side effects, while others may experience one or more.
Fatigue is a very common side effect. Often it is related to anemia, a condition in which the body can’t make enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells. White blood cell and platelet formation may be impaired; the first can lead to reduced infection resistance, the second to easy bruising. Other side effects include nausea and vomiting, mouth sores, hair loss and a metallic taste in the mouth. Radiation can damage the skin while some drugs can cause what’s called chemo brain, a mental fogginess that affects memory and focus.
Treatment’s effects on the body are only part of the problem. The medical community now recognizes that emotional distress must be considered when treating cancer patients. Stress can lead to tense muscles, increased heart rate, fatigue, headache and a weakened immune system.
“We need to work with people’s emotional reaction to the physical symptoms of treatment,” says Steven Hickman, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and associate clinical professor at University of California San Diego (UCSD). “Anxiety, depression and panic can get in the way of treatment.”
Natural Side Effect Relief
Integrative medicine therapies fall into two broad categories: bodywork and mind-body techniques, such as mediation, massage, chiropractic, acupuncture and yoga, and those that are ingested, such as diet, supplements and herbs. The use of integrative medicine allows patients to feel more in control of their health. “Today’s patients are very well-educated; they search on the internet and come to their doctors’ offices with ideas of what may help them,” says Shauna Birdsall, ND, FABNO, director of naturopathic medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America Western Regional Medical Center in Goodyear, Arizona (CTCA, www.cancercenter.com).
Although many oncologists are comfortable with their patients’ use of CAM, only about half of patients using these therapies tell their doctors. CAM usage should always be undertaken in consultation with both an oncologist and one or more professionals trained in complementary techniques, such as a naturopathic physician like Birdsall.
CTCA’s approach is to have patients meet with CAM practitioners as part of the overall treatment plan to discuss options for side effect control. For example, one patient with colon cancer was advised to take zinc for taste changes and ginger for nausea. “All of a sudden she could drink water again and not have it taste bad, which meant she could hydrate properly, and not be nauseous,” says Birdsall.
After treatment ends, CTCA patients are advised on diet and lifestyle changes to help avoid cancer recurrence and for general nutritional support. Supplements may be used for specific purposes, such as alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin B6 for nerve damage or calcium and vitamin D for bone loss.
Mind-body therapies can help boost immunity, relieve pain or manage unpleasant side effects.
Randomized trials support use of hypnosis for pain and nausea and relaxation therapy, music therapy or massage for anxiety. Reiki, a form of energy healing, supports cancer patients experiencing emotional vulnerability, anxiety or pain by encouraging physical, mental, emotional and spiritual balance. Research from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center has shown that acupuncture can reduce a debilitating side effect in which the flow of saliva is reduced, a common side effect of radiation therapy for head and neck cancer. This ancient healing art has also shown itself to be helpful in treating chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting as well as pain relief.
Mind-body techniques such as mediation help address both physical and emotional issues. Hickman, who also directs USCD’s Center for Mindfulness, says, “Pain is made up of sensation and distress, so we teach patients to come into the present moment.” Lorraine Chase of San Diego, 72, went through Hickman’s program at UCSD before she knew she had breast cancer but credits what she learned there with helping her through the ordeal. “Practicing the inner quiet of meditation and the awareness that comes from being mindful helped me accept the diagnosis. I didn’t waste energy fighting it but allowed my body to do what it could to heal,” says Chase, a retiree who used to work in the university’s human resources department. Cancer-free for six years, she adds, “Mindfulness is a tool, but it takes time to become part of your life.”
Many patients have found CAM helpful in dealing with the roiling emotions that a cancer diagnosis—and treatment—can bring. DeSimone, who eventually regained her singing voice, knows how important a person’s mental state is when coping with cancer treatment. She says, “Meditation paces us and helps us be quiet in a noisy world. A positive attitude allows a person to deal with traumas to the body that come with treatment. Whatever we can do to reduce stress level will help us be healthier.”
Research continues into ways CAM can help alleviate cancer treatment side effects. Researchers are currently evaluating the safety and effectiveness of massage for lymphedema, fluid retention caused by lymphatic system damage, as well as yoga for fatigue and tai chi for physical fitness and stress. Other studies have found a correlation between quality of life and enhanced survival (BMC Cancer 8/15/11, The Breast Journal 11-12/11).
Battling cancer may be difficult, but natural options can help make treatment easier to bear. Birdsall says, “I would really encourage patients to educate themselves about integrative medicine. It’s empowering and can really improve their overall quality of life.”