5 Integrative Therapy Treatments That Complement Traditional Cancer Care

Cancer can wreak havoc on patients’ physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. While traditional treatments address the physical impacts of cancer, incorporating integrative therapy complements those treatments to address the patient as a whole person.

Patients look to different types of integrative therapy to:

  • Help manage stress
  • Reduce physical pain or symptoms of cancer
  • Decrease physical side effects of the cancer treatment
  • Improve overall mood and outlook on life
  • Support their immune system
  • Improve stamina and reduce fatigue and weakness
  • Feel more involved in their care and healing
  • Support their overall sense of well-being

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine divides complementary cancer care into five domains:

  1. Biologically based practices, which include the use of herbs, supplements, and foods
  2. Mind-body medicine, such as support groups, prayer, and meditation
  3. Manipulative and body-based approaches, including massage, chiropractic, and yoga
  4. Energy medicine, such as qigong, Reiki, and acupuncture
  5. Whole or alternative medical systems, which are complete systems of theory and practice, such as Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine

These five domains cover a wide range of therapies. Encourage patients interested in adding integrative therapies to their treatment plan to discuss options with their physician. Depending on your patient’s or the physician’s experience with integrative care, responsibility may fall to the patient to seek out qualified practitioners who offer the desired therapies and have experience working with cancer patients.

Here is a sampling of the various therapies available.

1. Biologically Based Therapies

Diet and nutrition are the primary areas of focus in biologically based therapy. Much anecdotal evidence points to the benefit of a healthy diet and the virtues of selected foods and nutrients in helping prevent and fight cancer and in supporting the immune system. Scientific studies have been conducted on the effects of various foods as well, although not all have proven conclusive. For example, research has found that maitake mushrooms may positively affect the immune system, but they have not been found to help treat or prevent cancer. A nutritional counselor can work with a cancer patient to create an individualized plan to help him stay nourished through treatment and recovery. This plan can also provide a strong foundation for disease prevention and health maintenance.

The nutrition plan may include supplements; an organic diet of whole foods; a therapeutic, macrobiotic, or vegetarian diet; fasting and detoxification; juicing; herbal therapies; or Ayurvedic nutrition. Dietary supplements are intended to augment food choices and stimulate certain naturally occurring healing processes. A supplement program may be designed to help support the immune system through the rigors of chemotherapy. Supplement companies cannot claim to aid in the treatment of certain diseases. However, resources such as The Definitive Guide to Cancer are available to help you or your patient evaluate their potential benefits.

2. Mind-Body Medicine

Meditation, one of the most commonly used mind-body techniques, helps calm the mind and bring about a less reactive state. It can have a direct impact on your patient’s stress level and may alleviate feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear. Among the wide variety of meditative practices, two of the most used are concentrative and mindfulness meditation. In concentrative meditation, a person focuses on breathing, an image, or a mantra to quiet the mind. Mindfulness meditation aims to reduce the mind’s internal dialogue and simply accept what exists in the environment without judging it. As a thought arises, the meditating person can gently witness it without reacting or becoming distracted.

Brain training may improve the mild cognitive impairment known as chemo brain, which involves trouble with memory and concentration. It has the potential to impact cancer patients and survivors in many ways. Exercising the brain can help improve memory and sharpen mental capability, so it might be worth recommending a brain training program to your patient along with other integrative therapies.

3. Manipulative and Body-Based Approaches

These therapies can support a cancer patient by reducing stress. They may also positively affect the body’s ability to cope with cancer by supporting immune system functioning, aiding in flexibility and movement, reducing pain, and nurturing the spirit. Many patients struggle with fatigue and weakness that can lead to inactivity or falls. If safety is an issue, a home monitoring system can provide a cancer patient with a sense of comfort and confidence as she navigates treatment, recovery, and a return to health.

Movement therapies such as exercise, yoga, tai chi, and dance can be an essential part of an integrative cancer treatment plan. The National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association, and the Surgeon General of the United States all endorse the health-promoting benefits of exercise. Exercise is especially beneficial for cancer patients, as it can improve their tolerance to treatments, reduce fatigue, and help them maintain healthy a weight and muscle mass. Exercise may also help with insomnia. However, patients may want to avoid strenuous activity late in the day because the release of endorphins could interfere with a good night’s sleep. That said, gentle exercises such as yoga before bedtime may help some patients fall asleep more easily.

Yoga, considered both a form of exercise and a spiritual practice, is often recommended for those with joint or muscle problems With practice, certain yoga postures can increase range of motion, improve body alignment, and decrease pain. Scientific studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of yoga as part of an integrative treatment plan. A research review in Cancer Control indicates that additional benefits of yoga may include improvements in mood, stress, cancer-related distress, sleep quality, cancer-related symptoms, and overall quality of life. Many cancer centers around the country offer yoga instruction and encourage its practice.

4. Energy Medicine

Also called energy healing, this treatment encompasses a wide range of techniques and modalities. Underlying these philosophies is the belief that a field of energy exists within and around the physical body. The state of each person’s energy field determines their spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. Energy healers strive to restore a person’s vitality through balancing, cleansing, clearing, repairing, and removing any perceived blocks to the energy flow.

Reiki therapy is one form of energy healing, which encourages balance on all levels by helping to reduce stress, pain, and anxiety; bring back an overall sense of well-being; and encourage the body’s own ability to heal. Reiki involves a light, noninvasive touch, and practitioners are thought to direct energy through their hands to the places where healing is needed in the patient’s body. While studies have not found evidence that Reiki helps treat cancer, anecdotal evidence points to its ability to help patients relax and reduce their pain.

5. Whole or Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture is a practice of traditional Chinese medicine as well as a form of energy medicine. The premise of acupuncture treatment, which originated in China approximately 5,000 years ago, is to balance qi, the energy that belongs to all living things. Qi is believed to flow along 12 major pathways in the body, called meridians. Acupuncture treatments generally involve the insertion of small needles into specific points along the meridians to support the flow of qi throughout the body, which is said to restore balance to the patient’s life force and thereby improve his health.

Studies have demonstrated that acupuncture can relieve pain, nausea, fatigue, and other symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatment. It has also been shown to alleviate cancer-related pain. Scientists theorize that the insertion of needles stimulates the nervous system to release endorphins, which reduces the perception of pain. Some doctors recommend acupuncture in combination with conventional pain medication to control surgery-related pain. Acupuncture has also been reported as helpful for other types of pain experienced by cancer patients, such as from headaches, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions.

Integrative Therapy Resources

The above types of integrative therapy are just the tip of the iceberg; there are numerous therapies and techniques within specific modalities that might be beneficial to supplementing the treatment of cancer. Depending on the source, these therapies and types of care may be referred to as complementary medicine, alternative therapy, or integrative medicine. A handful of the therapies, such as nutrition, exercise, yoga, and acupuncture, have been studied by scientists more extensively than others. However, the body of data is growing. The range of options may overwhelm patients, who often rely on testimony from other cancer patients, their doctors, or research findings when deciding on complementary treatment. The American Cancer Society and National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine provide resources for anyone interested in researching more about these options. Individuals can also work with a patient navigator or patient advocate to evaluate what may be best for their circumstance.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. As with many chronic illnesses, it can affect more than just a person’s physical body. Illness at any age brings a level of upheaval to a person’s outlook on life, confidence in her body, and mindset about what is possible and what is important. Fortunately, many cancer patients receive quality care through conventional medical treatments that address the physical ramifications of the disease. Additional therapies may also be beneficial, even if they do not treat the cancer itself. If your patient is considering integrative therapy to complement her traditional medical care, helping her explore the various options may open a door to physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.

For patients undergoing treatment for cancer, a medical alert device can improve safety and quality of life. Learn more about how to refer your patients for Lifeline medical alert systems.

 

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