The phrase “alternative medicine” comes with a lot of baggage. To some patients, it offers a pathway to healing. To others, it suggests charlatans and quacks. But to a growing number of health care professionals, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the umbrella term for these practices, is a growing field with much to offer, particularly for cancer patients.
According to a recent report in the Journal of Patient Study, inpatient integrative medicine, a relatively new field of medical practice that combines CAM therapies with conventional treatments, has proven highly effective for pain relief, one of the most common and difficult side effects of conventional cancer treatment. Increasingly, studies are beginning to show how alternative treatments can also help patients with fatigue, nausea and persistent dry mouth. Though CAM therapies are not meant to replace traditional medical treatments, they can supplement them. “When a person has cancer and is going through conventional medical treatment many symptoms arise that threaten their quality of life,” said Gwen Wyatt, a professor in Michigan State University’s College of Nursing.
Because patients can often practice CAM treatments such as meditation without the help of a doctor, “this can enhance their own sense of self-efficacy and control over their health crisis,” Wyatt said. Wyatt recently conducted a study of the impact of CAM treatments on more than 400 women with advanced breast cancer. In her report, published in the January–February issue of Nursing Research, Wyatt separates alternative treatments into five categories: biological, mind–body, manipulative body, energy and alternative medicine.
Though the medical community still largely regards the last two categories with suspicion—they have yet to undergo significant clinical trials to prove their efficacy—biological, mind–body, and manipulative body treatments continue to gain credibility as valuable elements of an integrated medical approach. “Many cancer treatment centers are adding CAM therapies to their menu of supportive care therapies,” Wyatt said. Wyatt found that most patients seeking alterative therapy turned first to biological treatments such as vitamins, minerals and supplements, which may strengthen a patient’s immune system and relieve pain. Garlic, green tea, ginger and iron are among the most commonly recommended supplements.
Clinical research is mixed on the effects of many vitamins and supplements. Some can interfere with other traditional medications, causing a new set of adverse side effects, and others may prove harmful to patients with certain types of cancer. After biological therapy, the second most popular alternative treatment is mind–body medicine, which focuses on the relationship between the body’s mental, neurological, hormonal and immunological functions. These treatments include counseling, guided-imagery training, laughter therapy, music therapy, Tai Chi, Qigong and Reiki, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Laughter therapy in particular may strike many patients and caregivers as, well, laughable. But according to the American Cancer Society, laughing produces real physiological changes in the body, releasing hormones and endorphins that can lessen pain and stress, stimulate circulation, and even strengthen the immune system.
While both biological and mind–body therapies have caught on in the medical community, patients and doctors alike remain skeptical of manipulative and body-based treatment options such as acupuncture, massage therapy, reflexology and chiropractic. But, with recent studies finding legitimate uses for these therapies in cancer patients, skepticism may soon wane.
Early this year, researchers at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center found that acupuncture led to diminished pain for cancer patients suffering from joint pain caused by medication. Study participants experienced less severe pain, and 20 percent were able to stop taking pain relief medication. Acupuncture has also proven effective in mitigating dry mouth symptoms in patients undergoing radiation, according to a University of Texas study.
So how do you decide if CAM therapies are right for you? As always, you should consult your doctor. With alternative treatments growing in popularity, more and more oncologists will be able to help you figure out if you should integrate them into your overall regimen.