Dr. Linda Lee
Reducing Risk and Living with Cancer
Integrative Medicine and Cancer Survivors
by Linda Lee
Cancer is still a very dreaded word. It was not so long ago that, in many people's minds, being told that you had the "big C" was akin to being given a death sentence. Perhaps you even know someone close to you who won't seek preventative care because of a fear that once the diagnosis of cancer is made, life is over — so why go looking for it?
But the truth is, with great strides in cancer care and earlier treatments, cancer has for many individuals become another chronic disease that must be managed like heart disease or diabetes. In fact, it is estimated that by 2022 about 18 million living U.S. citizens will have had a diagnosis of cancer — nearly twice the number that were alive in 2001!
This increased survivorship is remarkable, but it means that all of us must become aware of and understand the unique medical and psychosocial needs of those who have had a diagnosis of cancer.
Many cancer survivors, for example, must still endure lingering symptoms or health conditions that have arisen from the chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery they have had. These therapies saved their lives but they also may have led to significant organ injury or lingering digestive or neurologic issues. Many cancer survivors and their families still experience the stress associated with a cancer diagnosis, the treatment plan, or treatment-related symptoms.
Integrative medicine offers an approach to deal with many of the issues relevant to cancer care. The integrative approach seeks to enhance conventional medicine by addressing areas like nutrition, stress, and the physical effects of cancer therapies.
Nutrition issues, for example, are diverse in those undergoing cancer care, and so eating the right diet during and after cancer therapy matters greatly. Many individuals struggle with regaining lost weight or with overcoming digestive symptoms that interfere with their ability to take in the daily calories they need.
On the other hand, there are as many if not more individuals who need to address being overweight even after they have had a diagnosis of cancer. Solving this problem is crucial because being overweight has a negative impact on cancer occurrence and recurrence. The good news is that a recent study showed that just a small reduction in weight was associated with a reduction in breast cancer recurrence in overweight women.
We also now understand that specific biochemical changes can be triggered in the body by emotional stress, and that these changes may negatively impact cancer growth.
Integrative medicine identifies strategies to help individuals address stress and anxiety, and then makes these tactics a part of their cancer care. Such a plan might include an individualized program of massage therapy, tai chi, and cognitive behavioral therapy, for example. (Cognitive behavioral therapy, by the way, does not tell one how to think; it instead helps one better understand how thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are connected.)
Finally, integrative medicine allows cancer survivors to learn about and then discuss the many other evidence-based therapies that exist to help them with their chronic symptoms — healing treatments like acupuncture, which reduces the hot flashes and nausea associated with some cancer therapies.
The World Health Organization defines health as "complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Integrative medicine upholds that principle. Helping individuals with a chronic illness achieve a sense of wellbeing so that they can make their way forward in life is the major goal of integrative medicine.