Alternative Medicine's Role in Cancer Treatment
When you think about alternative medicine and cancer treatment, what comes to mind? Strange substances that promise miracle cures? In the U.S. today, many would say that alternative medicine's best role in cancer treatment is as a complement to traditional Western therapies. Nobody is suggesting you should use any complementary therapies instead of traditional cancer treatments.
Having cancer treatments can be hard on your body and your mind. Many researchers and healthcare practitioners believe that the stress of having cancer and being treated for it can compromise an already-compromised immune system. There's likely to be fear and anxiety about having a serious illness. There may be nausea, extreme fatigue, loss of appetite and other physical symptoms from the treatment alone. Alternative therapies can help cancer patients reduce the severity of side effects from treatment and identify ways to feel less fearful and anxious. Integrating these therapies into conventional cancer treatment, the thinking goes, can help the body heal itself by strengthening the immune system.
Giving You a Role in Your Own Healing
There's evidence that people with cancer who feel some sense of control over and commitment to their treatment have higher survival rates than people who are more stoic and simply accept treatments without taking a more active role in their healing process. When you're being treated for cancer in the conventional way, it's easy to feel intimated, afraid and not in control at all. It can seem like you're at the mercy of your highly qualified doctors to perform the necessary surgery, determine the best type of chemotherapy or radiation and make the best decisions.
Integrating alternative therapies into your cancer treatment is not only a way to make you feel more relaxed, maybe ease nausea and fatigue or improve your energy level. It's also a way for you to choose and practice therapies that appeal to you personally.
Here are some treatments and practices that many patients find helpful. These eastern philosophies and practices tend to emphasize the importance of balance in body, mind and spirit.
- Acupuncture. Many patients find acupuncture can help control the nausea and vomiting of chemotherapy. The National Institutes of Health itself recommends acupuncture for this purpose. Acupuncture also helps some people handle pain better. Others say it can improve their mood and energy levels.
- Yoga, t'ai chi or qi gong exercises. These are sometimes thought of as "moving meditations." They can help the flow of oxygen to the blood and create a sense of calm and relaxation. Increased flexibility, balance, breathing capacity and mood can also result.
- Meditation and/or guided imagery. These practices help you quiet your mind, focus on the moment and appreciate the good things in life.
- Nutrition therapy. There's a vast body of knowledge about the effect of diet on the immune system. A knowledgeable practitioner can offer sound advice about the best type of diet to follow and helpful supplements to take.
Frankly, there have not been a tremendous amount of large studies, conducted over long periods of time, that prove without a doubt that alternative therapies can help prolong the lives of cancer patients. But over the years, small studies and anecdotal evidence have produced positive information. So much so that the National Institutes of Health is currently funding and soliciting research on the effectiveness of alternative therapies in cancer treatment.
Finding an Alternative Medicine Practitioner
There are a lot of ways to find a good alternative medicine practitioner:
- Your doctor is the first person you might want to ask. It's become common for many people with cancer to explore alternative treatments, and many times their doctors keep a list of reliable practitioners for this reason alone.
- Ask for referrals from people you trust and respect. Never underestimate the importance of word of mouth.
- Check your local Yellow Pages. Many include listings for acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, meditation instructors, etc.
- Check out adult education classes and health clubs. Many offer alternative classes or have information about where to find these kinds of classes.
- Investigate the Web. One site, The Alternative Medicine Homepage, http://www.pitt.edu/~cbw/altm.html, has listings and links to directories, Internet sites, databases, etc.
American Institute for Cancer Research; J. Gordon, S. Curtin. Comprehensive Cancer Care: Integrating Alternative, Complementary, and Conventional Therapies. HarperCollins, New York, New York, 2000.