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Which forms of complementary therapy are cancer survivors using?

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By Jessica Wapner

Take a Deep Breath

Burgeoning research explores holistic healing for cancer patients

By Jessica Wapner


Acupuncture, yoga, meditation, green tea, tai chi—these are just a few of the unconventional approaches that cancer patients often look to for pain relief, side effect management, and overall well-being. The exact number of patients using such complementary therapies isn’t known, but studies suggest that 10 percent to 80 percent of cancer patients are turning to them for help with aspects of their health that their regular medical care does not address. Fortunately, new research studies and case-by-case evidence is zeroing in on the most useful ways to combine complementary medicine with conventional treatment, and oncologists are more willing than ever to discuss these options with their patients.

The blending of conventional and complementary treatment is known as integrative oncology: a drug regimen plus a non-Western modality, such as acupuncture to help control nausea and vomiting, tai chi to alleviate joint pain, or meditation to reduce stress. This multifaceted approach is different from alternative therapy—the refusal of conventional treatment in favor of unproven interventions, like some herbal supplements—which oncologists generally oppose. Integrative oncology is used “most often to relieve symptoms related to either the malignancy or its treatment,” says Donald Abrams, a medical oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who is the director of clinical programs at UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. “In this arena, an increasing body of evidence is accumulating supporting these modalities.”

Whereas a typical doctor directs treatment against a person’s cancer, integrative oncologists tend to take a more holistic view. In fact, the specific type of cancer is almost inconsequential when an integrative strategy is used. “I consider cancer a weed,” explains Abrams. “Someone else is tending to the weed and I’m tending to the garden. My goal is to make the patient’s soil as inhospitable as possible to the growth and spread of that weed.”

Traditional Chinese medicine, also called TCM, may be the area of integrative oncology with the most evidence supporting its use. “I find that my patients, in the midst of conventional therapy, seem to do better when they see a TCM practitioner and receive these interventions—acupuncture in particular,” says Abrams. Clinical evaluations of acupuncture, one of the best-studied tools in traditional Chinese medicine, have found it to be associated with decreased chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (in adults and children) and reduced fatigue. At the 2008 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology this spring, investigators at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City reported the results of a randomized clinical trial involving 70 patients with head and neck cancer. After neck surgery, patients who had acupuncture reported greater improvement in pain and dysfunction than patients who received only regular care. Other preliminary evidence suggests that this needle-based technique, intended since ancient times for “energy balancing,” might alleviate radiation-induced dry mouth.

After being diagnosed with stage IIIc ovarian cancer, Lindy Rose Graham underwent surgery and chemotherapy at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and also received weekly acupuncture. “I never vomited, and I had just one day of nausea and a little more energy than most people I know who go through this,” says Graham, who is now an 11-year survivor. “I felt healthy, even though I was battling cancer.”



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