What is CAM therapy for cancer?

A few weeks ago, my husband and I attended a “superconsciousness” workshop called Supergenius Life with the hilarious Ryan Pinnick. This guy has arguably struck the perfect blend between humour and self-help - one minute sharing heartbreaking stories, the next having the audience in stitches, but all the while bringing it back to practical, applicable principles you can use to get over your own barriers to growth and experience the best version of your own reality possible.

During the workshop, we spent some time working on our own personal life vision. What I found really interesting about this exercise was that, unlike every other time I’ve sat down to do some “visioning work” and I start with my career and business goals, this time I started with my family life. It came to me so naturally that I couldn’t help but write about my hopes and dreams for my family.

And when the time came to move onto work and business, the words flowed from the tip of my pencil easily. 

I’ve always thought of Essential Cancer Education as existing to help patients indirectly through empowering and equipping the cancer professionals to be their best professional self, but something struck me during this workshop, and not for the first time.

I see the purpose of Essential Cancer Education as being bigger than just me. I see it as a hub - a central meeting place for a community of practitioners to come together and learn together, sharing experiences, tips and examples of best practice. But I also see it as a safe place to explore the unconventional. 

Now don’t get me wrong - I am a scientist through and through - I’m ALLLLLL about the evidence, but I’m also very open minded. I’m a Christian (on account of my experiential learning, NOT my logical thinking and reasoning!) and I think this has made me more open to learning about so-called “alternative healing” and the impact of spirituality on our overall health and wellbeing.

During my visioning exercise that day, I kept visualising an image of a bridge, which I believe represents the fact that I aim to bridge the gap between the world of traditional medicine and that of complementary and alternative medicine - or CAM therapies.

And so it feels timely to write a mini-series all about CAM therapies in cancer. 

As Sophie Sabbage so eloquently said at Trew Fields last month, to “seek out the lies, hunt them down and spear them to the ground so all that remains is the truth”.

The first post in this mini-series will take a look at what CAM therapy actually is, and then in the second post we’ll look at some therapies that are worth including in your patient’s or client’s treatment regime. The third post will bust some myths about which CAM therapies lack sufficient evidence or have safety concerns, and the fourth and final post will take you through how to actually discern which websites are credible and which are not.

So what exactly is CAM therapy?

“CAM” stands for “complementary and alternative medicine”, and is a term used to describe medical products and practices that are not part of the standard provision of care. 

Some are more mainstream than others, for example acupuncture and hypnotherapy, while others have serious questions raised over their safety and/or effectiveness (“efficacy”). 

Many patients choose CAM therapies to help them cope with the side effects of their conventional cancer treatments - for example, to help with pain relief, nausea and insomnia. Some CAM treatments can help to ease the anxiety and stress that comes along with the cancer experience. But importantly, the use of CAM therapies can give a patient a sense of hope - a relief to the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that often accompanies a serious condition because they feel that they are actively doing something to help themselves heal. 

In her book, “Radical Remission”, Dr Kelly Turner talks about the importance of this sense of power. Taking control of your own health is the second of the nine key factors she describes as common to those who have undergone radical remission (which she defines as statistically unexpected cancer remission, pp6-8).

So what’s all the controversy about?

When it comes to scientific studies on drug therapies, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are typically conducted on large cohorts of patients with a particular cancer. These studies are usually VERY specific (so, for example, not just “breast cancer” but “metastatic breast cancer” or “inflammatory breast cancer”). However, many of the complementary and alternative therapies for which RCTs have been conducted don’t have the same well-defined population of patients, or statistically robust numbers as the corresponding studies for conventional therapies - and this is partly due to lack of funding (the current climate for research funding is arguably at its most austere - with more and more researchers competing for the same pot of money, those with clinical support will always win over the smaller trials - that’s just the politics and economics of the current scientific research climate), but it’s also partly due to the drop-out rate (however it could be argued that this is also an issue for conventional RCTs).

There are also many historic issues with CAM therapy research findings being inconsistent because of the lack of standardisation in the design and scientific methodology used for the trials. Early studies were often descriptive in nature (qualitative, rather than quantitative) and included mixed populations of patients (this is called a “heterogeneous population” and basically means many different types of cancer patients were put together in a trial without separating them out in respect of age, gender, ethnicity, cancer type, and so on).

But then there are also some arguments for CAM therapies not being suited to RCTs for various reasons. For example, often CAM therapies are bundled together (e.g. hyperbaric oxygen therapy and hyperthermia), so it can be difficult to define exactly which element is having a given effect. Add to this complexity the fact that patients will often change many things on their own too (diet, exercise, stress-relief, and so on), which may mask the effects of a given treatment.

However, there is a growing interest in the field amongst “traditional” clinicians, and with that, an ongoing drive towards standardising the methods used in researching the effects of CAM therapies. Therefore, in my opinion, there is hope for more clarity around this controversial topic in the coming years and decades.

Where do I stand on the matter?

I’m always abundantly clear that although I am pro complementary therapies, I don’t necessarily believe that alternative therapies are a wise move. While I do acknowledge that conventional chemotherapy IS a poison (it’s a carcinogen itself, for goodness’ sake!), surgery, chemo and radiotherapy are still the most curative options available at this stage. 

If I was diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I don’t think I’d forego the conventional treatments in favour of the alternative. I would, however, absolutely throw everything I could at it and would likely try a lot of different options to find healing, but my logical science-brain would also tell me to follow doctor’s orders since, after all, they have infinitely more direct experience with it than I do.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some CAM therapies that are worth exploring with your patients and clients, before taking a look at those where the evidence is sketchy, at best, the week after.

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Essential Cancer Education exists to make a difference in the lives of those living through the cancer experience indirectly by assisting cancer professionals in engaging their patients and clients with lasting, positive lifestyle changes to reduce secondary cancer risk.

I believe that through education and increasing public awareness of the impact of our dietary and lifestyle habits on cancer risk, we ALL have the power to reduce cancer incidence. Nearly half of all cancers can be prevented by making positive diet and lifestyle changes. Nearly half! 

I can’t do this alone, and I believe I’m part of something bigger. A movement of sorts. And I would LOVE to have you join me in this movement. 

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