Your Natural Treatment Plan
Adding complementary therapies to your treatment plan can both improve your prognosis and help you feel better. Integrative oncologists agree that when it comes to breast cancer, conventional therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation may be unavoidable. But the following holistic strategies offer healing benefits.
In this ancient Chinese medical treatment, thin, sterile, stainless steel needles are inserted at specific “acupoints” on the body that lie in meridians or channels through which energy, or qi, flows. Stimulation of these points may activate key portions of the nervous system, resulting in the release of natural pain-killers and a boost to immune cells. These cells are particularly useful in weakened areas of the body and help relieve symptoms such as fatigue, hot fl ashes, nausea, and pain. Acupuncture’s individualized approach is key, says M. Kay Garcia, RN, LAc, an acupuncturist at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “If two patients come to me complaining of the same symptom, such as fatigue, their treatment might be different due to each one’s constitutional makeup,” she says.
Vitamins, minerals, herbs, and botanicals can be powerful adjuncts to any breast cancer treatment plan, but tell your doctors which ones you are taking. Some oncologists believe, for instance, that antioxidant supplements like turmeric negate chemo’s effectiveness. According to Robert Newman, PhD, professor of experimental therapeutics at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, this may be true in lab studies, but not necessarily in humans. He and his colleague Keith Block, MD, of Block Center for Integrative Treatment in Chicago, analyzed clinical trial studies from 1966 to 2007 and discovered that antioxidants may in fact increase survival rates and tumor response, decrease side effects, and help patients finish treatment in better shape. Some supplements that show promise for breast cancer patients include:
This phytochemical—found in turmeric—has been used for thousands of years to treat inflammation in the body, a known side effect of chemotherapy and radiation. Curcumin has been shown to interfere with growth of breast cancer cells and reduce tumor growth in animal studies.
Research shows that vitamin D therapy improves breast cancer prognosis because it stimulates apoptosis, the process by which cells die as part of the normal cell cycle. “If cells continue to divide un- controllably, they can become a tumor,” says K. Simon Yeung, PharmD, a research pharmacist and clinical coordinator in the Integrative Medicine Service department at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Most experts say the recommended 400 IU of vitamin D isn’t enough and suggest 1,000 IU or more, especially in those with vitamin D deficiency. Note: Make sure the supplement you take is vitamin D3, the most bioavailable kind.
Some animal studies have found that these medicinal mushrooms help stimulate the immune system so it is better able to recognize cancer cells and attack them. “The initial research suggests maitake mushrooms may also help relieve side effects caused by some chemotherapy drugs,” says Yeung. Clinical studies are underway to confirm these effects in humans.
Eating a healthy diet loaded with whole fruits and veggies has a big impact on fighting breast cancer, says Taryn Forrelli, ND, a Boston-based naturopath. When battling the disease and undergoing treatment, try her three diet rules:
Opt for Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Chronic, unresolved inflammation can lead to cancer, so eating foods that have an anti-inflammatory effect—such as salmon, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds—can help you feel better and may very well prevent the disease. Even more promising: Anti-inflammatory foods may stop cancer metastasis. “Inflammation in the body contributes to the formation of new blood vessels, which is necessary for cancer to spread,” Forelli says. “If you decrease inflammation, you may prevent this from happening.”
Eat to Detox
Adding cruciferous veggies and dark leafy greens to your diet keeps your kidneys and liver working properly so they can eliminate the strong chemo drugs after they’ve done their job. Also important: Boost your intake of probiotics (through foods with live active cultures, such as low-fat yogurt and kefir) to keep your digestive track working well.
The pesticides used to grow nonorganic produce are “xenoestrogens,” estrogen-like compounds from unusual sources. These have hormone-like effects in the body and can stimulate the growth of hormone-dependent tumors. “The last thing you want to do is ingest these types of chemicals when your body is already compromised,” says Forrelli.
In a small study, women with Stage I and Stage II breast cancer were led through hypnotic guided-imagery sessions, where they were encouraged to visualize protective immune-system cells finding, destroying, and removing cancer cells. After practicing the visualization techniques on their own at home, the women had much less depression and higher immune cell counts. Here’s a 10-minute guided imagery exercise from Brook M. Stone, LCSW, who teaches guided imagery to cancer patients at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in San Francisco:
1. Relax by breathing deeply; in through your nose for five counts, out through your mouth for five counts. Repeat for a few minutes. “This will help you let go of your everyday concerns and drop in to a more relaxed state,” says Stone.
2. Imagine yourself in a safe, beautiful retreat in nature, and use as many of your senses as you can draw on. For example, you could be at the ocean where you feel the sun warming your shoulders, the salt on your lips, and the waves hissing as they pull back from the shore. Using all of your senses during any visualization has a deeper physiological effect on your body.
3. Now imagine something that represents strength, self-protection, and healing that will get rid of the cancer in your body—and imagine the cancer as something that’s weaker and less intelligent than that first image. “It’s important to conjure up images that resonate with you,” says Stone. For one woman, it might be a vacuum cleaner that sucks up cancer cells; for another, it could be a fairy that sprinkles vanishing dust on the cancer cells in her body.
Few things are more relaxing than a good rubdown, especially for those experiencing the joint and muscle pain that often results from cancer treatments. A University of Minnesota study looked at the benefits of massage therapy in breast cancer patients and found that those who received a 45-minute therapeutic massage session once a week for a month took eight fewer doses of pain medication than those who didn’t receive.
“Some research suggests massage builds immunity by boosting the number of natural killer cells in the body,” says Tracey Moon, director of massage therapy services at Duke Integrative Medicine. “And perhaps most importantly, massage facilitates a deep restorative state, and this is where healing can occur.” A few important warnings to keep in mind, says Moon:
Wait 4 to 6 weeks to get a massage on the area where you’ve just had breast surgery, and get your doc’s OK before booking the appointment.
Skip deep massage if you are currently undergoing chemotherapy. Chemo causes a decrease in red and white blood cells, which increases the risk of bruising. Ask for a light-touch massage instead.
Avoid sensitive skin areas. Massage and massage oils can make skin that’s already irritated from radiation feel even worse.