Integrative medicine is a healing oriented medicine that takes into account all aspects of a person, and draws from both conventional medicine and complementary approaches to find the most effective, least invasive path to healing for each person. As far as cancer, integrative medicine can help at all stages–by optimizing overall health to prevent cancers from arising, by relieving side effects of the cancer or treatments, and by helping to prevent recurrences of cancer. A patient’s treatment plan will probably include conventional cancer care like chemotherapy, surgery or radiation, but also addresses evidence-based complementary therapies like nutrition, supplements, acupuncture, massage and mind-body therapies like yoga or meditation.

As far as prevention, there are many factors that contribute to the development of cancer. Some are within our control and others, like our genes, are not. However, research is showing that gene expression is greatly influenced by multiple factors, including the foods we eat, toxins we are exposed to, and stress hormones. So even if a person has a strong family history of cancer, there are many things that person can do to influence gene expression and the chances of getting cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1/3 of cancers could be prevented through healthy nutrition and healthy weight. Another 1/3 could be prevented by not smoking. Integrative medicine focuses on helping people make healthy changes in nutrition and physical activity, as well as addressing mental, emotional, social and spiritual aspects that influence health.

During treatment for cancer, integrative medicine offers ways of helping with side effects of the treatment or cancer.

  • Acupuncture can be very helpful for pain, neuropathy, nausea from chemotherapy, dry mouth from radiation, stress and anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue. Typical treatment involves needles placed just under the skin on the arms and legs, including a point on the inner arm that is especially useful for nausea. The needles are left in place for 20-30 minutes. Most patients experience deep relaxation during the treatment and have a sense of well being after acupuncture.
  • Yoga has been shown in clinical studies with cancer patients to lower stress hormones and improve sleep, fatigue, quality of life, and physical functioning.
  • Research on meditation in cancer patients shows that it can help with stress, quality of life, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Mindfulness meditation, which cultivates non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, is the type of meditation that has been most studied. Classes in meditation and yoga are available in Appleton and Oshkosh through Affinity Health System, The Y and yoga studios throughout the valley.
  • Herbal medicines and supplements can interact with conventional treatments so should be used only with your physician’s guidance.
  • Aromatherapy can help with nausea and stress.

After cancer treatments are finished, people are often interested in what they can do to help prevent a recurrence. This can be a good time to re-evaluate life goals, lifestyle habits and make healthy changes, which can have a big impact on risk of recurrence as well as quality of life. As far as physical activity, the World Health Organization estimates that exercise in breast cancer survivors can reduce a woman’s risk of recurrence by 26-40%. Healthy nutrition is also essential. In addition, it is important to address stress, emotional health, relationships, and make changes in order to live in accordance with one’s life goals, passions, and purpose.

Dr. Jennifer Norden, HOPE Medical Advisory Council