Which complementary therapies are worth including in a cancer treatment plan?

Last week we looked at what CAM therapy is, and this week we’re going to explore three types of therapies that are worth including in your patient’s or client’s treatment regime, and we’ll take a closer look at the evidence available to support their use in cancer.

Let’s start with the safest types of CAM therapy - those that involve no drugs, no needles and no drastic dietary changes.

Complementary therapies that promote emotional wellbeing

This first category of complementary therapies includes journaling, mindfulness and (quite possibly my favourite!) nature immersion.

Journaling is a practice that has grown in popularity in recent years, perhaps fuelled (or even fed!) by the explosion of beautiful stationery available on the market. Both my 8-year old daughter and I are self-professed stationery-addicts - we can’t walk past a Paperchase store without being drawn in by all that glitters…!

I’ve been journaling myself for about 2.5 years now, and it’s fun to look back at old entries and see how ideas and experiences have developed and unfolded over time. So to discover that there is scientific evidence supporting this practice in improving quality of life in cancer patients is heartwarming, to say the least. 

According to one study, expressive writing - specifically focusing on writing about living and dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis - can significantly improve patient quality of life.

If you’d like some journaling prompts to give your patients or clients to get started with, you can download this free 7 Days of Journaling Through Cancer Into Clarity and Calm here

Another practice that has become very popular is mindfulness, and the introduction of new publications like In The Moment magazine has made it increasingly accessible to the general public. 

The term mindfulness covers a multitude of practices, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy, breathing techniques and guided imagery. 

A 2017 review of several studies concluded that mindfulness-based clinical interventions were effective for handling stress, anxiety and depression in breast cancer patients. 

Nature immersion therapy is precisely what it says it is. The concept of “forest bathing” comes from the traditional Japanese practice called Shinrin-Yoku and involves immersing yourself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. It is said to have positive effects on immune function as well as being effective for mood disorders and stress, and is thought to be useful in preventative medicine due to its direct effect on increasing the parasympathetic nervous system.

In a systematic review published in BMC Cancer, which looked at 11 studies into the role of nature in cancer patients’ lives, the authors found that nature provided patients with an “unburdened physical and psychic space invested with personal significance” which helped them to navigate their cancer experience. 

Minimally invasive CAM therapies 

Acupuncture is considered to be a minimally invasive therapy and is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) published an extensive review of the evidence and concluded that acupuncture is effective for treating many diseases, symptoms and conditions, including pain and other cancer symptoms.

Since then, multiple studies have demonstrated a positive effect of acupuncture in managing many cancer-related side effects, including nausea and vomiting in breast and lung cancer, anxiety and depression, dry mouth, fatigue, hot flashes and pain, amongst others. For more details, see this article.

Off-label, overlooked or novel cancer approaches (ONCAs)

The third category of CAM therapies worth exploring include those developed for other purposes. These so-called “off-label” or re-purposed drugs are not in standard use for cancer, and a great example of this is Metformin - the diabetes drug.

Metformin is used to treat type II diabetes, and alongside changes to a patient’s diet and exercise regime, can reduce blood glucose levels to within a safe range.

However, researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas spotted its potential as an anti-cancer drug when a study of over 2500 early-stage breast cancer patients showed that those who were diabetic and received metformin had a higher response rate following chemotherapy than those who were diabetic and didn’t receive metformin, and even those who were non-diabetic.

In addition, the risk of developing pancreatic cancer was found to be 62% lower in patients who were receiving metformin treatment for type II diabetes.

Since then, other studies were conducted retrospectively and it was found that survival durations were longer, for many different cancers, in patients who had been taking metformin for type II diabetes, including prostate, colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancer, as well as multiple myeloma.

Closing thoughts

Next week, we’ll bust some myths about which CAM therapies lack sufficient evidence or have safety concerns with them, and then we’ll conclude this mini-series the week after by taking a look at how to know what to trust.

It’s worth noting that all the evidence cited above looked at these interventions as a complementary therapy, not an alternative. This does not constitute medical advice: this post is for educational purposes only. However, if it were me, I would not be passing up the conventional treatments in favour of the alternative. I would absolutely explore many different options to find healing alongside conventional medicine, but in close consultation with my oncologist.

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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! 

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