Cancer: Can Complementary Medicine Help?

Experts say a number of therapies can help in the treatment of cancer and its side effects

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

All any patient with cancer wants is healing and to reduce side effects during and after treatment. An increasing number of patients turn to complementary medicine at Functional Medicine Associates.

Physician Az Tahir, who practices internal holistic medicine in Syracuse and Rochester, said that some cancer patients come to his practice for improving their health overall — and thus improve their chances of beating cancer with traditional care — while others don’t plan to pursue traditional care.

“Natural treatment can improve the effect of chemotherapy and radiation and support in reversing the cancer,” Tahir said.

He cautions against panacea “cures” promised by some.

“If someone says they can cure cancer with homeopathy alone, I don’t agree with that,” Tahir said. “We have to apply the basics, like nutrient, stress reduction, good sleep, physical exercise and supplements. Then apply essential oil, acupuncture and homeopathy.

“Some practitioners are giving the wrong impression that if you just do homeopathy you’ll be cured. If they still have stress going on at home, this won’t help.”

The point at which the cancer is detected also makes a big difference. While it’s never too late to try healthful lifestyle changes, once an aggressive cancer has metastasized, it’s harder for any approach to make headway.

“Patients’ bodies are changing so rapidly. They need a lot of support,” said physician Joanne Wu, who is a certified yoga instructor and integrative wellness coach, board certified in rehabilitation medicine and holistic medicine. Wu is part of the integrative oncology program of Wilmot Cancer Center at University of Rochester.

Since treatments like chemotherapy and radiation kill healthy and malignant cells, they take a toll on patients’ bodies. Wu said that using complementary modalities helps mitigate these effects.

“Co-morbidity like depression, anxiety, nerve damage that increase falls are common side effects not well managed with the traditional model,” Wu said.

Acupuncture often helps control pain. Yoga, as another example, reduces stress, depression and anxiety, while improving sleep.

Physician Kaushal B. Nanavati, director of integrative medicine at Upstate Cancer Center and assistant professor at Upstate Medical University, believes that “complementary augments traditional medicine.”

Nanavati authored “The Core 4 of Wellness” (CreateSpace: 2016), which emphasizes the basic foundation of health.

Nanavati said that by starting with the fundamentals to “optimize body, mind and spirit,” patients feel more like they’re “living with cancer, not dying with it. A person with cancer is more than the cancer.”

Patients receive counseling about nutrition, physical exercise, stress management and spiritual wellness.

Nutrition includes eating whole foods, plant-based nutrition, and healthful sources of protein, Nanavati said..

How it’s prepared makes a difference, too, since high-heat cooking and charring has been linked to higher risk of cancer.

While all produce is healthful, “we know that vegetables such as cruciferous ones like kale, spinach, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and asparagus have good evidence that they are anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory,” Nanavati said. “That’s important.”

He said Upstate Cancer Center employs a nutritionist dedicated to cancer care, who can help patients with food options.

Physical exercise has been proven to help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence for people with breast, lung and many other cancer types.

A study by the World Health Organization states those who engage in seven hours of moderately intense activity weekly have a 40 percent lower chance of premature death of any cause.

Nanavati said that stress raises cortisol levels in the body, which leads to oxidative stress, which leads to pre-cancerous state in the cells. Deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and engaging in meaningful religious activities can all contribute to lowering stress levels.

Nanavati said that studies indicate 10 minutes of deep abdominal breathing daily can reduce stress hormones and promote better sleep. Nanavati added that there’s evidence that acupuncture can help with nausea.

He said that overall, cancer patients should “work with people who have training in cancer. Supplements that they think are supportive can counteract the effect or magnify the effects.”

Leslie Eimas, licensed massage therapist and founder and president of My Oils Life, in Fayetteville, believes that complementary medicine “is vital” to anyone with cancer.

Eimas said that essential oils may be used to promote a healthy immune system and healthy cell growth, as well as reduce stress, pain and insomnia.

She also has training in polarity therapy, a type of hands-on energy modality that she says helps the body get into balance to improve sleep, mood and stress levels.

“It’s very targeted working on the nervous system, pain, and the digestive system,” she said. “People just feel calmer and sleep better.”

Leslie J. Kohman, SUNY distinguished service professor, is surgery medical director of Ambulatory Palliative Care Program and director of outreach for Upstate Cancer Center and Upstate Medical University.

“It is very difficult to identify a trusted source of internet information,” Kohman said. “ Patients must remember to tell their doctor about all supplements they are taking and non–traditional approaches they are using. Many complementary and integrative modalities are extremely beneficial for cancer patients; however, cancer patients are also vulnerable to unsupported promises by unscrupulous promoters of treatments that have no proven benefits. Your doctor is always your best source of reliable information about what should not be trusted.”