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Integrative Oncology - What Does It Mean?

Evidence-based care modalities can complement mainstream cancer treatment

Integrative oncology aims to optimize health, quality of life, and clinical outcomes across the cancer care continuum and to empower people to prevent cancer and become active participants before, during, and beyond cancer treatment. - from the NCI Journal

Integrative oncology is the use of a combination of complementary medicine therapies along with standard of care cancer treatments (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery) to help with side effects and improve a cancer patient’s quality of life. It is evidence based or informed, prioritizes the patient, and is personalized to the patient’s response to treatment. These complementary therapies aim to help control physical and emotional symptoms, enhance physical and emotional strength, and provide patients with skills enabling them to help themselves during and after the prescribed cancer treatment. Several symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, neuropathy, pain, brain fog, nausea, stress and gut disturbances can be addressed with complementary modalities.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is an umbrella term encompassing a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not always considered part of conventional medicine. Yet in traditional healing systems, the power of the mind and other non-pharmaceutical interventions are integral to the treatment of ill health. - NIH, NCCAM; Feb, 2008.

Many people believe that complementary and alternative medicine therapies mean the same but they are not.

Complementary Medicine: It includes modalities that are used along with standard of care cancer treatments to help with side effects of cancer treatment. For example, acupuncture and guided imagery may be used to ease nausea caused by chemotherapy. Complementary medicine is now part and parcel of the treatment plan for cancer patients at several academic and community cancer treatment centers.

Alternative Medicine: This refers to treatments that are used instead of standard cancer treatments. Alternative medicine is not evidenced based and not appropriate as the only type of treatment for cancer. For example, getting vitamin infusions or oil pulling to treat cancer, instead of a standard treatment such as chemotherapy prescribed by an oncologist is not recommended as a sole modality for cancer treatment.

There are several integrative modalities that can help cancer patients and are actively being used or are under investigation. These modalities can include:

  • Mind-body Methods - mindfulness, biofeedback, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mediation, relaxation techniques, guided imagery, hypnosis, yoga, music therapy, creative/expressive therapies, and spirituality.

  • Ingestibles - Proper use of certain thoroughly evaluated herbs, diet plans and supplements that have been studied to make sure they do not interfere with standard of care and do not have any adverse effects.

  • Body-based Practices - massage therapy, chiropractic interventions, reflexology.

  • Energy medicine - Reiki, Marma, Qi-gong, Tai chi, Jin Shin Jyutsu, therapeutic touch.

  • Eastern Medical Systems - Chinese medicine such as acupuncture, Indian medicine such as Ayurveda and Homeopathy.

Talking to your cancer care team is absolutely important before you start any integrative oncology therapy. Your team can help guide you towards therapies that may be beneficial to your specific concerns based on your symptoms and needs. Your healthcare team can refer you to integrative practitioners at your treatment center, or in your area. It is important that all of your care providers know what therapies you are using and work together to provide you with the best treatment.

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Reason to Hope

There is new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that indicates a Western-style diet that is rich in red and processed meat, sugar and refined grains/carbohydrates is tied to higher risk of colorectal cancer through the intestinal microbiota.  Gastroenterology, 2022;DOI:10.1053/j.gastro.2022.06.054 

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