Cancer is a frightening diagnosis, and it’s no small wonder that many patients and their loved ones often seek out alternative or holistic therapies as a mean of regaining some control over their health and well-being.
As an oncologist, I believe in treating the whole person – not just the disease. True wellness depends upon more than your doctor’s orders alone, and I agree wholeheartedly that some holistic therapies may be extremely beneficial in caring for a patient’s body, heart, mind, and spirit when employed in tandem with clinical treatment. But while there are a number of helpful, supplementary remedies and practices out there to choose from, plenty of fraudulent (and even dangerous) ones exist, too.
So, if you or a loved one are curious about holistic (sometimes called “integrative”) medicine, how do you know whether a particular treatment may be helpful or harmful? Here, I’ll guide you through a few simple guidelines for safely incorporating holistic therapies into a traditional battle plan against cancer.
FIRST, DO NO HARM
The primary responsibility of all doctors is to act in the service of the safety and wellbeing of our patients. Doctors know that we still have much to learn about cancer, and we are always excited to discover new treatments and methods that may help our patients to survive and thrive. We also know that it’s our job to uphold rigorous standards of clinical testing and safety, and to steer our patients clear of charlatan practitioners and fraudulent services that may compromise their health and well-being.
When considering particular holistic therapies, use common sense. Be wary of “miracle cures” or any product or service promising a “silver bullet” treatment for cancer. Every case of cancer is different, just as every patient is different, and there is no “one size fits all” cure for all types and variations of the disease. A patient’s age, medical history, and genetic makeup (as well as the location and genetic traits of the cancer itself) are just some of the factors that doctors consider when devising a personalized strategy for treatment. As such, always approach any product or service offering a “quick fix” for cancer with extreme skepticism and caution (American Cancer Society ).
Early detection and treatment often improve a cancer patient’s chances of survival, so don’t avoid or delay a clinically-tested treatment recommended by your doctor (like surgery, radiation, or immunotherapy) for the sake of an untested alternative therapy. The goal should be to integrate, not replace, and an alternative therapy that ultimately does nothing may still be harmful if it costs doctors and patients valuable time and money that could be spent on proven, potentially-lifesaving treatments.
Ultimately, remember the spirit of the word “holistic”: every element working together as an interconnected whole. Always coordinate with your oncology team and thoroughly discuss any supplementary course of treatment before you try it. Remember that some holistic therapies may be more harmful than helpful: herbal compounds may interact poorly with some medications, for example, or be dangerous for patients with certain medical conditions. If you have questions about whether a holistic therapy is safe, ask your doctor: your oncologist may be able to guide you to integrative therapies that safely work in tandem with traditional cancer treatments, and to help you choose a truly holistic treatment strategy that’s custom-tailored for you.
THINGS TO TRY
A healthy diet and exercise are two important, common-sense ways to safely integrate holistic therapies into your traditional cancer treatment plan (again, always consult your doctor first before making a radical change to your existing routine). Many patients find massage, yoga, and acupuncture to be extremely useful in reducing stress, managing symptoms, and generally finding more comfort and delight in their daily lives during treatment. If you find it helpful and your doctor feels it isn’t harmful, do it!
Remember always that your mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being is just as important as your physical well-being. In an observational study published by the peer-reviewed journal Cancer, patients who demonstrated strong religious or spiritual beliefs – “feelings of transcendence or meaningfulness or peace” – displayed better overall physical health than those who did not (American Cancer Society ). Spirituality is the ultimate personalized medicine, and there’s no right or wrong answer dictating what form it should take for you. It could be an organized religion, but “spirituality” doesn’t have to be traditional in order to be effective: mindfulness practices, meditation, support groups, writing, and art are all ways that you may connect with our greater human community and discover a higher, loving purpose.
Finally, don’t underestimate the simple power of making time for your friends, family, hobbies, and work: they make up the life you’re fighting for, and a strong personal support system may help care for you when and if you are unwell enough to care for yourself.
Your fight against cancer will be, in many ways, the most deeply-personal enterprise you undertake in your life. Throughout it all, remember that you’re not just “Patient X” in a hospital bed, and you are not the disease: you are you! What works for one person may not work for another, so don’t be afraid to keep asking questions and continue working together with your cancer-fighting team to find the best treatment strategy for you.
American Cancer Society . Can I Safely Use an Alternative or Complimentary Therapy?
American Cancer Society . Study: Cancer Patients with Strong Religious or Spiritual Beliefs Report Better Health. Stacy Simon. October 21, 2015.