Complementary therapies empower you, the patient. After being diagnosed with cancer, you might feel like you are ceding control to a team of experts—your medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and surgeon, not to mention their nurses and technicians. Together all of these experts can give you the best-quality care available for your condition, but it’s not uncommon to feel lost in such a system.
Integrative medicine puts the ball back in your court. It offers a broad array of therapies and lifestyle choices that not only make a real difference for your health and happiness but also give you back a sense and reality of control and confidence.
There are many things you can do to maintain the best possible physical and emotional health throughout your cancer treatment and beyond. You can eat better, be physically active, and manage your stress through mind-body techniques. Acupuncture treatment and massage therapy will help minimize unwanted symptoms of chemotherapy or radiation. For example, studies suggest that acupuncture can be very helpful for reducing nausea and vomiting, as well as hot flashes that may arise if you are prescribed hormonal therapy. Acupuncture is successful at promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and diminishing pain, as well.
Most major cancer centers across the country, and many community hospitals, now have integrative medicine departments that offer some or all of these therapies, on both an inpatient and an outpatient basis. Talk to your oncologist but also consider speaking with a physician who specializes in integrative medicine or an expert in integrative medicine who specializes in working with cancer patients. They can help guide you to the best complementary therapies for particular problems and help you develop a comprehensive treatment plan that achieves the greatest synergy between the mainstream and complementary domains, giving you the best chance of beating cancer while helping you live in as much comfort as possible through treatment and thereafter.
Modalities in the integrative medicine realm can be categorized in different ways. Some involve long-term lifestyle changes; others are treatments you can receive from a practitioner once a week or so. Still others you can learn and then practice entirely on your own in the comfort of your home.
If you are considering specific complementary therapies, it is important to consider how researchers determine if a particular therapy works—or doesn’t work. It is research results that provide confidence that a therapy may provide the desired result.
What Is Proper Research?
In proper research, following promising clinical or laboratory results, a new therapy is pilot-tested to determine the best dosage and other important preliminary information. If the new therapy appears safe and effective, a larger, more definitive clinical trial is conducted. This trial will be “randomized,” which means that patients will be randomly assigned to receive or not receive the therapy during the trial’s duration. Determined by an electronic version of a coin-toss random allocation, patients will belong either to a group receiving the new treatment or a group receiving the standard treatment for that specific cancer diagnosis.
The two or more groups of subjects are then followed in exactly the same way, receiving the same tests, doctor visits, and the like. Patients and their caregivers do not know to which group they were randomly assigned. Proper randomization balances known and unknown factors that might influence results, helping ensure that the results are valid and not influenced by patient perceptions. Randomized clinical trials are lengthy and expensive, but they have produced the major advances in cancer treatment that led to the more than 67 percent survival rate of US patients across all cancers.
Complementary treatments offer cancer patients many important advantages. They range from extended survival (exercise) to relieving stress, anxiety, and other symptoms (acupuncture, mind-body therapies). The several types of complementary therapies that have been studied and found to be beneficial for many cancer patients include diet, being savvy about supplements, physical fitness, acupuncture, mind-body therapies, massage therapies, and creative therapies.
In Survivorship: Living Well during and after Cancer (Spry, 2014; $16.95), Barrie Cassileth, PhD, offers a comprehensive overview of evidence-based integrative cancer treatment, providing a welcome resource for patients and their loved ones. Dr. Cassileth provides background on complementary therapies, describing various options and their potential to alleviate symptoms of cancer treatment and including important information about current research related to each topic. Written in a clear, accessible style, the book also provides insight throughout to differentiate effective, evidence-based options from dangerous “alternative” therapies. The result of Dr. Cassileth’s work is a book that is at once easy to understand and backed by considerable research—a valuable resource for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis.