Many people with cancer like to use complementary therapies alongside the conventional medical treatments of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Complementary therapists do not claim to cure cancer but the various treatments concentrate on relaxation and combating stress, which may then benefit both physical and emotional well-being and may relieve side effects of the disease and treatments.
The following complementary therapies are examples of treatments often offered to help people with cancer:
- Massage therapy
- Art therapy
- Dietary changes
The effectiveness and safety of some complementary therapies have been scientifically tested and deemed safe to use alongside conventional treatments. However, there is currently limited evidence to support the use of other complementary therapies so patients, health care professionals and charities would like to see more research to find out the best ways to use them. Many people with cancer report beneficial effects and many doctors and nurses advocate their use. Treatments are often offered via local hospice day therapy and cancer support centres.
It should be appreciated that conventional medical treatments for any disease must be scientifically researched and tested before entering mainstream use. Medical practitioners are regulated by laws to ensure they are suitably qualified and adhere to certain standards and codes of practice.
At present, only osteopathy and chiropractic practitioners must have a suitable qualification and register with a governing body. For all other complementary therapists this is voluntary and there are currently no plans to enforce compulsory monitoring of practitioners. This means that anyone can set themselves up as a Complementary Therapist. However, many practitioners do have a suitable qualification and belong to a voluntary regulatory body with standards, codes of practice and public indemnity insurance, but others do not. The message is to be cautious when choosing a therapist, be wary of those who might claim to have a “cure” for cancer or those who discourage conventional treatments. Hospitals, hospices and cancer support centres will ensure that their therapists are suitably qualified.
It is advisable to tell your Oncologist, Specialist Nurse or GP if you are considering a complementary therapy to make sure that the treatment is safe for you and does not interact with your conventional treatment.
BENEFITS OF COMPLEMENTARY THERAPIES
Many people have found that complementary therapies help them to cope with the unpleasant symptoms and side effects of treatment associated with cancer. They can be very relaxing as therapists aim to treat patients holistically, building up a relationship and listening to the difficult feelings that a diagnosis of incurable cancer invariably brings with it. Some treatments may be done in a group, Tai-chi or Mindfulness for example, providing the opportunity to meet other people facing similar issues.
Complementary therapies may help you:
- Feel less stressed and anxious
- Sleep better
- Feel more in control of your life
- Improve the quality of your life
- Cope with cancer symptoms and side-effects of your drugs
There is a plethora of evidence that eating a healthy, balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise is beneficial for everyone, whether or not they have cancer or other life-limiting disease. People with advanced breast cancer may choose to examine their diet and decide to make changes in order to keep themselves as healthy as possible and thus more able to cope with symptoms of the disease and side-effects from treatments.
This may not be as easy as it sounds as other issues come into play when faced with a diagnosis of incurable cancer. Treatments and symptoms can affect your appetite and taste buds, and it can often be a case of finding something, anything to eat that is palatable. Personal beliefs and emotions may also influence eating and drinking habits – some may feel that despite following a healthy diet and lifestyle they still developed cancer whilst others may feel there is no use changing their habits since they already have advanced cancer so they may as well enjoy anything they choose.
Some people may look to “superfoods” to boost their immune system or choose to follow a diet which encourage or discourage certain types of food as they feel it may prevent their cancer from further progression. However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that these changes will make any difference to how your cancer behaves. Some diets can be very restricting, expensive and sometimes lead to a lack of nutrients and may result in other conditions such as anaemia (lack of red blood cells) or osteoporosis. If you’re thinking about changing your diet or want to find out more about different diets, you may find it helpful to talk to your specialist team or a dietician, although dieticians are not routinely offered to people with advanced breast cancer.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) have produced helpful information about alternative diets.
COMPLEMENTARY OR ALTERNATIVE ARE THEY THE SAME THING?
The simple answer is NO. Alternative therapies are treatments that are used instead of conventional medical treatments and their use is not endorsed by oncologists or the major cancer charities, The subject can be highly controversial but can potentially cause harm to vulnerable and desperate patients who may pay a substantial amount of money for treatments with no scientific evidence that they have any beneficial effects. Some alternative therapists may claim their treatments can cure cancer and discourage the use of conventional treatments. Research into some alternative products has suggested there may be benefits, but more studies are required before such products are accepted alongside mainstream medicine.
Some alternative treatments promote their products as “natural” therefore = safe = harmless. Many drugs used today in conventional medicine, including chemotherapy drugs are derived from plant and marine substances (for example docetaxel was derived from the needles of the European yew and paclitaxel was derived from the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)). However, pharmaceutical companies do not simply take a plant in its raw state and form it into a capsule or tablet. Some elements may be removed and getting the dosage right so that the drug is effective whilst not causing unacceptable side effects or harm takes time and carefully monitored trials.
Some alternative therapies are promoted very effectively so that people think that they work. They may provide anecdotal “evidence” from people who have tried the treatments and believe they have benefited from them and this may give people false hope. But anecdotes are not scientific evidence and there is no way of telling how many people have used the same treatment and not benefited from it.
Individuals are free to explore whatever they choose to help them cope with incurable cancer, but would be wise to explore all the evidence so that they can make an informed decision. It is advisable to discuss any alternative treatments with your Oncology team so that you are aware of the risks.
Cancer Research UK has produced an informative publication on this topic.
HERBS, VITAMINS & SUPPLEMENTS
Some people are also keen to explore whether there any herbs, vitamins or supplements that may help their cancer. Many herbs or supplements are promoted as cancer treatments and sometimes as cures, but it is important before embarking on any, potentially expensive, regime of herbs or supplements to discuss any effect they may have on your treatment. Some herbs can be extremely dangerous and some may interact with your existing treatment. We think The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the USA has the best information that we’ve seen on their ‘About Herbs’ database. The database provides both consumers and healthcare professionals with evidence based information about herbs, botanicals and supplements. The site features an A-Z listing and descriptions include a clinical summary, traditional and proven uses, potential benefits, possible adverse reactions and herb/drug interactions.
Visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center database for more information.
You may also come across some sites which promote the benefits of metabolic therapies to treat or even ‘cure’ advanced cancers. Some of the more commonly promoted metabolic therapies are the Gershon regime, the Gonzales regimen, or the Contreras therapy. Again The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the USA has detailed information on these therapies.
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