In the field of cancer care, a 'disease-based' approach that views patients as 'cases' undervalues patients' humanity and are driving people with cancer to seek care elsewhere. Poor doctor-patient communication, the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and worries about treatment side effects all contribute to patients' decision to reject some or all of conventional cancer treatment in favour of healers who promise they can cure cancer for high out-of-pocket costs.
However, cancer patients value ongoing follow-up care from their cancer specialists provided their doctor respect their beliefs. Unfortunately, some doctors tend to regard patient decisions as 'right' or 'wrong' and this may affect the doctor's ability to respond with sensitivity and understanding.
Cancer specialists need to re-focus on the cancer patient in a personal way as no two people are the same and no two cancers are the same. Integrative cancer care could be the answer to help re-connect cancer doctors to their patients again.
What is integrative cancer care?
In general, integrative cancer care is the use of complementary medicine therapies in combination with conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy.
Defining the terms
Conventional cancer therapies: Cancer treatments that are widely used and have been proven useful in clinical research trials. These are often called standard of care treatment and may include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy and radiation therapy.
Complementary medicine: These therapies are used alongside conventional medicine. They are not thought of as standard treatments, though many can be useful to cancer patients.
Alternative therapies: These therapies are used instead of conventional medical therapies. Read about the risks of alternative therapies.
Why is integrative cancer care important?
Integrative cancer care views the cancer patient as a whole person when it comes to their cancer diagnosis. Patients' cancer care plans go beyond their diagnosis and symptoms to look at their wellbeing, support system, cultural and spiritual beliefs and goals.
It can be thought of as having two layers. First, conventional treatments attack the disease itself. At the same time, evidence-based complementary therapies help with managing cancer symptoms and treatment side effects.
In effect, integrative cancer care is the best of both worlds. It takes the best that modern medicine has to offer and couples it with evidence-based supportive care.
Which complementary therapies have been found to be useful in cancer care?
Physical activity have been found to build strength and endurance, help patients relax and cope with stress, and relieve pain, tiredness, worry and depression. Physical therapists who work with people with cancer would be able to find the best exercise plan for individual patients.
Good education about nutrition can help patients learn which foods to eat during treatment and recovery, cope with nausea and manage weight changes. Patients also could learn about herbs and supplements that may interfere with cancer treatment.
Acupuncture helps release chemicals like beta-endorphin and serotonin in the brain to relieve pain. It can also help to reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
Mind and body practices
Mind and body practices like yoga, meditation, tai chi and qigong can help improve quality of life. Many of these practices have been shown to lower stress hormones and improve mood and physical well-being.
Massage can reduce pain, decrease tension and stress, ease anxiety and depression, and help with sleep symptoms and fatigue. Massage might even help with recovery after surgery. However, care should be taken to choose an accredited masseur who has experience with oncology massage.
There are many other complementary therapies that have shown to help cancer patients but these are the main ones with the most evidence.
It is important to know that not everything that is labelled 'integrative cancer care' belongs to this field. There are occasions where vulnerable cancer patients are offered cancer treatment that are dangerous and have no scientific evidence. Before starting any complementary therapy, patients should talk to their health team about it. Some therapies may not have evidence behind it and some may not be suitable to combine with that patient's cancer treatment.
Taking the best of what is proven effective from complementary medicine and using it wisely in combination with standard of care conventional treatments can be empowering to patients. While there is some risk of interactions between herbs, supplements and conventional drugs, there are also many 'natural medicines' which are proven safe or very low risk and can be used alongside conventional treatments.
If you are interested to know more about integrative care and complementary therapies, leave your questions in the comments section below or follow us on Facebook @moretonbaycancercare for updates.
I am a dual-trained Medical Oncologist and Palliative Care Physician who is passionate about empowering people living with cancer through education