Social media and the Internet have increased our opportunity to amass information and form opinions around individual treatment decisions. As a result, there is an increased prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer care in the U.S.
Most of the information gained on complementary medicine comes from family, friends, or the internet, making it extremely difficult to discern reputable sources from ones to be wary of.
Some of the most common reasons patients seek to utilize a complementary or alternative medicine are:
- Helping to cope with the side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain, and fatigue
- Comforting themselves and easing the worries of cancer treatment and related stress
- Feeling that they are doing something to help with their care
- Trying to treat or cure their cancer
For this blog, we will define the differences between complementary and alternative medicine and discuss the integration of the two into traditional cancer treatment.
Know the Difference Between Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Standard or traditional cancer regimens have been clinically researched and proven to be safe and effective for one or more types of cancer.
Examples of standard treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and hormonal therapy.
There are also medicines to help with many of the side effects of cancer treatments, such as anti-nausea medications, and growth factors that have been clinically proven to be effective and safe.
Complementary treatments refer to supportive therapies that are used alongside traditional or standard treatment regimens.
The use of complementary treatments may improve wellbeing and quality of life as a person undergoes traditional treatment.
Some examples of mind-body complementary therapies are meditation, physical activity, acupuncture, yoga, guided imagery, reflexology, and massage. There are also biologically based practices such as dietary supplements and botanicals.
What is Alternative Medicine?
Alternative medicine differs from complementary medicine in that alternative medicine is used instead of standard medical treatment.
Alternative medicines have minimal to no scientific research to prove their ability to prevent, diagnose, or treat cancer. One example would be to use a special diet to treat cancer instead of traditional therapy.
It is important to note that if the claims made about an alternative treatment seem too good to be true, unfortunately, they probably are.
As I have said before, cancer is not one disease but over 200 diseases and is very specific to each individual. There are unique characteristics, exposures, grades, stages, and genomic profiles to consider in each person’s situation. What may have been effective for one person does not mean it will have the same results for someone else…even if the cancer type is the same.
It would be prudent to seek wise counsel to gain a thorough understanding of the pros and cons before deciding to enroll in an alternative medicine protocol.
How Do I Know if Complementary and Alternative Medicine Is For Me?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a branch of the National Institute of Health, is responsible for conducting and supporting research and providing information about complementary health products and practices.
Examples of information gleaned from their website:
- Topics from A to Z
- Tips on Complementary Health
- Science and Safety information
Many oncology providers have become more aware of promising integrative therapies and many of the larger cancer centers offer integrative oncology services.
It is important to note that although many integrative therapies can be helpful, others have been proven to have negative interactions with some standard cancer treatments or other medications.
The best way to incorporate these therapies into your cancer care is to talk to your healthcare team about how to safely integrate complementary therapies with your current treatment plan.
Integrating Complementary Medicine Into Your Treatment Plan.
Integrative oncology is the use of complementary therapies along with conventional medicine to treat a cancer patient’s mind, body, and spirit.
Integrative therapies can help with the goals of treatment, treatment of side effects, and distress relief, and may help with adherence and treatment results.
Some therapies that are thought of as integrative modalities:
- Mind-body methods – mindfulness, biofeedback, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mediation, relaxation, guided imagery, hypnosis, yoga, music therapy, creative/expressive therapies, and spirituality.
- Biologically based practices – vitamins, herbs.
- Body-based practices – massage, chiropractic interventions, reflexology.
- Energy medicine – Reiki, Tai chi, therapeutic touch.
- Other medical delivery systems – Chinese medicine such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
Your healthcare team can help guide you towards trusted resources to learn more about complementary therapies and refer you to integrative practitioners at your cancer center or in your area. An oncology social worker or patient advocate can assist with coordinating care and facilitating communication amongst providers.
It is important to note that not all medical insurance plans cover integrative treatments, be sure to check your specific plan’s coverage and provider network.