Complementary Medicine

Complementary Medicine

Applying a Whole-Person Approach to Cancer Care

by David Copenhaver, MD, MPH

Each passing year seems to bring new, better, more effective treatments for cancer. And, each year, more people join the growing numbers of cancer survivors. But, many of these survivors still struggle with the secondary effects produced by the very treatments designed to eradicate their disease. Some of them are turning to complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM for short. As a growing number of studies support CAM techniques as a complement to modern medicine, CAM therapies are rapidly gaining attention and acceptance. 

Complementary therapies seek to heal not only the body but also the mind. It is this whole-person approach to medical care that is so unique to these therapies, and so beneficial for recipients. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, therapeutic massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy, and music therapy are just some of the many CAM treatments that allow people to not only cope during and after cancer but also thrive. 

• Cognitive-behavioral therapy is currently the most commonly accepted psychological treatment for chronic pain. With cognitive-behavioral therapy, survivors learn how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions can influence your pain experience. Then you are equipped with unique coping strategies that can help you channel your thoughts and emotions to navigate pain in a constructive way. 

• Guided imagery is a unique CAM strategy that teaches you to picture a specific, pleasant scene, and to focus your attention on the sights, sounds, and smells specific to the scene, in order to bring about a sense of well-being. Both guided imagery and cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques can be combined into an effective treatment strategy for chronic pain. These techniques have also demonstrated benefit in reducing nausea, pain from mouth sores, and cancer-related pain secondary to breast cancer, among other cancer-related side effects.

A Few Words of Caution:

  • Talk to your oncologist before trying any form of complementary therapy.
  • Tell your complementary therapy practitioner about any prescribed medication you are taking, as well as any other complementary therapies you are receiving.
  • Never stop taking any prescribed medication without first discussing it with your doctor.
  • Tell your doctor about any complementary therapies you are already receiving.

• Hypnotherapy, contrary to widespread belief, does not involve relinquishing control of your body or falling into a deep, unconscious sleep. Rather, hypno-therapy places you in a trance-like state that provides profound relaxation and facilitates suggestibility to encourage substantial and meaningful behavioral change. Hypnosis has been found to be helpful in relieving cancer-related pain, as well as a host of other maladies ranging from chemotherapy-induced side effects to discomfort stemming from bone marrow transplant. 

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• Massage has long been established as a valuable and respected therapeutic tool. Particularly, therapeutic massage has been associated with reductions in stress, fatigue, and depression in cancer survivors. Research has also shown that people with lymphedema may benefit from specialized lymphedema massage therapy, as well. 

• Acupuncture is not only an ancient Chinese tradition, but it is also a very important traditional Chinese medicinal therapy. By channeling and redirecting the inner life force, known as chi, using needles placed into your skin at certain points on your body, acupuncture seeks to heal from within. Acupuncture has been known to improve chemo-induced nausea and vomiting, cancer-related pain, and fatigue; to stimulate appetite; and, in breast cancer and prostate cancer survivors, to reduce hot flashes.

Complementary therapies seek to heal not only the body but also the mind.

• Aromatherapy – the controlled use of specific plant-based essential oils applied to the skin via massage, placed in bath water, or inhaled through steam – has demonstrated numerous benefits for people with cancer. Clove, cypress, geranium, lavender, and citrus are just some of the many aromatherapy oils that have demonstrated improved sleep, as well as reductions in stress and depression. Aromatherapy has also been shown to promote a general sense of well-being, improving quality of life and overall wellness in cancer survivors. 

• Music therapy has been noted to reduce anxiety and stress, and to improve sleep. Although more definitive studies in cancer survivors may be necessary, historically, music has been known to improve both well-being and overall quality of life. 

As we enter a new era of medical care, conventional medicine is increasingly being supported by complementary therapies. These therapies offer low-risk and high-yield options to improve cancer survivors’ wellness and vitality. The growing acceptance and use of certain proven complementary therapies is not only encouraging but also uplifting as modern medicine pushes forward to care for the whole person, both body and mind. 

Dr. David Copenhaver

Board-certified in pain medicine and anesthesiology, Dr. David Copenhaver is director of the Cancer Pain Management & Supportive Care program, associate director of the Center for Advancing Pain Relief, and director of the pain telehealth programs at the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, CA. As a faculty member of the University of California, Dr. Copenhaver strives to provide the most comprehensive whole-person care possible by serving as a national example for comprehensive cancer pain care. He is dedicated to improving pain management and quality of life for cancer survivors.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2018.

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