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Integrative medicine for cancer treatment

When you have cancer, you want to do all you can to treat the cancer and feel better. This is why many people turn to integrative medicine. Integrative medicine (IM) refers to any type of medical practice or product that is not standard care. It includes things like acupuncture, meditation, and massage. Standard care for cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and biological therapy.

Integrative medicine is complementary care used alongside standard care. It combines the best of both types of care. IM encourages shared decision making between regular and complementary care providers and patients. This is when patients take an active role in their care as a partner with their provider.

Note that some types of IM may help manage cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment, but none have been proven to treat cancer.

Talk With Your Doctor First

Before using any type of IM, you should talk with your health care provider first. This includes taking vitamins and other supplements. Some treatments that are usually safe can be risky for people with cancer. For example, St. John's wort can interfere with some cancer drugs. And high doses of vitamin C can affect how well radiation and chemotherapy work.

Also, not all therapies work the same for everyone. Your provider can help you decide if a specific treatment might help you rather than causing potential harm.

When IM Can Help

IM may help relieve common side effects of cancer or cancer treatment, such as fatigue, anxiety, pain, and nausea. Some cancer centers even offer these therapies as part of their care.

Many types of IM have been studied. Those that may help people with cancer include:

  • Acupuncture. This ancient Chinese practice may help relieve nausea and vomiting. It also may help ease cancer pain and hot flashes. Be sure your acupuncturist uses sterile needles, since cancer puts you at higher risk for infection.
  • Aromatherapy. This treatment uses fragrant oils to improve health or mood. It also may help ease pain, nausea, stress, and depression. Although generally safe, these oils can cause allergic reactions, headaches, and nausea in some people.
  • Massage therapy. This type of bodywork may help relieve anxiety, nausea, pain, and depression. Before you have massage therapy, ask your provider if the therapist should avoid any areas of your body.
  • Meditation. Practicing meditation has been shown to ease anxiety, fatigue, stress, and sleep problems.
  • Ginger. This herb may help ease the nausea of cancer treatment when it is used with standard anti-nausea medicines.
  • Yoga. This ancient mind-body practice may help relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Before doing yoga, be sure to check with your provider to see if there are any poses or kinds of classes you should avoid.
  • Biofeedback. This therapy may help ease the pain of cancer. It also may help with sleeping problems.

In general, these therapies are safe for most people and pose little health risk. But before using them, you should always ask your provider if they are safe for you.

The Limits of IM

Currently, no types of IM have been shown to help cure or treat cancer. While many products and treatments are touted as cures for cancer, there are no studies that back up these claims. Before trying any product that makes such claims, talk with your provider first. Some products can interfere with other cancer treatments.

Finding an IM Practitioner

If you want to try an IM treatment, choose your practitioner wisely. Here are some tips:

  • Ask your providers or cancer center if they can help you find a practitioner.
  • Ask about the practitioner's training and certification.
  • Make sure the person has a license to practice the treatment in your state.
  • Look for a practitioner who has worked with people with your type of cancer and who is willing to work with your provider on your treatment.

References

Greenlee H, DuPont-Reyes MJ, Balneaves LG et al. Clinical practice guidelines on the evidence-based use of integrative therapies during and after breast cancer treatment. CA Cancer J Clin. 2017;67(3):194-232. PMID: 28436999. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28436999/.

National Cancer Institute website. Complementary and alternative medicine. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam. Updated September 30, 2019. Accessed April 6, 2020.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Are you considering a complementary health approach? www.nccih.nih.gov/health/are-you-considering-a-complementary-health-approach. Updated September 2016. Accessed April 6, 2020.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. 6 things you need to know about cancer and complementary health approaches. www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-you-need-to-know-about-cancer-and-complementary-health-approaches. Updated April 07, 2020. Accessed April 6, 2020.

Rosenthal DS, Webster A, Ladas E. Integrative therapies in patients with hematologic diseases. In: Hoffman R, Benz EJ, Silberstein LE, et al, eds. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 156.

Review Date 2/11/2020

Updated by: Mark Levin, MD, Hematologist and Oncologist, Farmington, CT. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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