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 consider and turn to complementary medicine.

One of them is Annette Lutz of Seneca Falls. While receiving treatment for breast cancer at Clifton Springs Hospital in 2011 and 2012, she found that massage therapy helped her cope with her medical journey, which included double mastectomy, removal of lymph nodes, chemotherapy and radiation.

“It was wonderful,” Lutz recalled. “For 30 or 45 minutes, it just took all my worries and troubles and anxiety. The setting was very relaxing and the people were very supportive. You could talk about what you were going through or just lie there and enjoy the massage. It was very stress relieving.”

Four years later, cancer returned to Lutz, this time as ovarian cancer, resulting in a total hysterectomy. Lutz tried both massage and acupuncture at Clifton Springs, though at first she felt skeptical of acupuncture. After a few treatments, “I became a believer,” she admitted.

Because of her illness, she experienced anxiety and bloating. She felt as if her body was in turmoil.

She feels that acupuncture and massage helped mitigate the effects of the traditional therapies.

This year, Lutz faces cancer for the third time, now in her kidney. She continues to go to Clifton Springs Spa for massage and acupuncture while undergoing treatment.

“They seem to get my body back in alignment and my emotional status,” she said. “It makes you feel so much better.”

“Emotional status and attitude when going through any kind of illness is so important,” Lutz said. “You have to maintain a positive attitude and stay emotionally strong or you can spiral down and the cancer or illness can take over your life.”

She credits her continuing success to her traditional and complementary health care, along with the support of friends and her husband, Bill.

Physician Az Tahir, who practices internal holistic medicine in 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.”

Physician Joanne Wu is a certified yoga instructor and integrative wellness coach, board-certified in rehabilitation medicine and holistic medicine, specializing in wellness. She sees clients in Rochester and other Upstate cities.

She’s part of the integrative oncology program of Wilmot Cancer Center.

“Patients’ bodies are changing so rapidly,” Wu said. “They need a lot of support.”

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.

For Krista Ingerick, licensed massage therapist at The Springs Integrative Medicine Center & Spa at Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic, massage “primarily benefits quality of life via relaxation and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system,” she said. “Massage can address anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, pain, fatigue, immune function, and relieve nausea.

“Reiki is a very gentle approach that has demonstrated decreased anxiety, and reduced symptoms of fatigue and pain.”

Physician Marilyn Ling, a radiation oncologist with a special interest in complementary medicine and integrative oncology at Pluta Cancer Center, said that evidence-based modalities are worth pursuing if it could enhance patients’ health and wellbeing.

“We want to do no harm,” she said. “That’s the first thing we’re taught at medical school. Some can be harmful. There’s a reason for testing.”

She listed meditation, stress management, yoga and music therapy as evidence-based to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Acupressure and acupuncture have also been proven to manage chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting for patients who don’t want to take medication for these symptoms.

Ling hopes that continued testing will prove more modalities can help.

Physician Sachiko Kaizuka, who works at Highland Family Medicine, said that following a healthful living regimen — exercise, nutritious diet, and stress reduction — can offer cancer patients benefits.

“I’ve seen people who have cancer who are told to eat what they want,” Kaizuka said. “They should eat more produce rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals, and less refined carbs and sugar.”