Alternative Therapies to Treat Cancer Symptoms

An Integrative Approach

In recent years many cancer centers have started offering alternative therapies in addition to conventional therapies in what has been coined an "integrative" approach to the treatment of cancer. By combining "east with west," it's been found in studies that many of these alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, yoga, and meditation, can help people with cancer better cope with the symptoms of cancer and cancer treatments. Here is a list of some therapies commonly offered by cancer centers with their benefits, followed by links that discuss each therapy in greater detail. As with conventional treatments, it is important to talk with your doctor about benefits, risks, and cautions before beginning any of these therapies.

Young Woman Getting Acupuncture Treatment
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Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice is which needles are placed in meridians of the body in order to balance the body's energy, and in such, promote healing. It appears to help with emotional symptoms associated with cancer such as depression and anxiety, and may also help control symptoms as varied as chemotherapy-induced nausea, chronic pain, dry mouth from radiation to the head and neck, hot flashes with breast cancer, and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy.

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African American woman meditating in park
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An advantage of meditation is that it can be done anyplace and anytime. Studies have found that meditation significantly improves the perception of stress in people with cancer—and cancer brings many stressors to our lives. For those bothered by chemobrain, meditation may help with those bothersome memory lapses. And preliminary studies have found that meditation decreases the level of stress hormones in the blood, a finding that may help with healing and even give our immune systems a jolt in preventing cancer relapse or progression.

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Woman doing a chair yoga pose
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Yoga is a 5,000-year-old Indian practice that can kill two birds with one stone for people with cancer. As far as mental health benefits, cancer patients practicing yoga reported significantly less emotional distress and improved sleep. On the other side, yoga, depending on how strenuous, may be seen as a form of exercise—and we are hearing more and more about how physical activity helps not only with quality of life issues but may improve survival.

A gentle yoga class following surgery or treatment can help you rterun to your ordinary activities and be a push to get active again and regain your life. Make sure you talk to your doctor first, of course, before signing up for a local yoga class.

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old man practice tai chi in the park
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Qigong is a practice that uses a combination of meditation, breathing, and gentle movements to control the flow of energy in the body. Among other things, qigong has been found to help with the annoying symptom of cancer fatigue. While the primary benefits of qigong appear to be in helping people cope with the emotional effects of cancer, studies have recently found that qigong may have positive effects on the immune system and cause changes in the genes that cause cancer cells to die—that is, at least in laboratory and animal experiments.  

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Woman's leg undergoing massage
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Most of us enjoy a back rub, but massage can provide extra benefits for those living with cancer. Studies have found that massage therapy can improve quality of life by decreasing stress and fatigue while improving symptoms of depression. Of course, there are cautions, and you should discuss massage therapy with your oncologist first. Conditions such as bone metastases, a low white count, or blood clots could theoretically increase the risk of having a ​massage. Despite these cautions, massage therapy has even been found helpful in improving quality of life at the end of life.

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Woman painting
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Art therapy—that is, expressing your emotions through art forms such as watercolors, has been found to improve quality of life for people living with cancer. No experience is needed, and you don't need to have an artistic bone in your body to benefit. This "therapy" may be done alone, even during hospitalizations, or as part of a cancer support group. Expression through art has become so popular, that there is even a contest for cancer patients who have expressed themselves in this way.

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Hand stroking cat head neck
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Pet therapy isn't exactly a therapy, but the presence of animals—cats, bunnies, dogs, your choice, can have several benefits for those living with cancer. Benefits can range from decreasing anxiety, reducing the amount of pain medication needed, to enhancing the will to live. Biologically, our furry friends may help decrease the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in our blood, while increasing endorphins— those natural painkillers responsible for "runner's high." Of course, there are risks to consider, and pet therapy isn't for everyone. The following article discusses the risks and benefits of pets, and what some cancer centers are doing to take advantage of the benefits.

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Getting Started

The first step if you are interested in integrating alternative therapies into your treatment plan is to check with your oncology team. If these therapies aren't available at your cancer center, ask for recommendations as well as any cautions you should keep in mind. Some therapies such as meditation can be started immediately in the comfort of your home.

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