Cancer. It’s a condition that affects almost all of us - whether we have experienced it directly ourselves, or someone we love has received that devastating diagnosis. And it is not just the disease itself – it’s also the accompanying fear and uncertainty, the sheer overwhelm, the treatment options and loss of a ‘normal’ life. It’s a roller-coaster of a journey, and you will never be the same afterwards.
A cancer diagnosis often leads people to search for natural options to help them through this difficult time, which is completely understandable. I truly believe that when faced with a health challenge, we have the right to explore what is available, and make informed, educated decisions regarding our own health. Naturopathy takes a whole-body approach to ANY health condition (including cancer), and there are many areas we are able to provide support for – in a way that is gentle on the body.
Support For Side Effects of Cancer Treatments
It’s no secret that the use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy often come at a heavy cost. Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy (meaning that the drug travels through the bloodstream throughout the entire body), and as such, can affect not just the targeted area, but also causes damage to other cells in the body that are still healthy. The side effects can be significant, and more often than not these severely impact a person’s quality of life.
Common side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Fatigue (experienced by 50 - 80% of sufferers)
- Anxiety and depression (80%)
- Sleep issues (up to 75%)
- Pain, including nerve pain (30 - 40%)
- Loss of appetite and weight loss (50 - 80%)
- Nausea and vomiting (around 60%)
- Inflammation of the inside of the mouth (40-60%)
Here are some of the areas where some natural TLC is available that may help manage some of these undesirable side-effects:
Gut Upsets: For example, the probiotic strain Lactobacillus rhamnosus LGG® has been shown to improve gut symptoms caused by chemotherapy.1 Ginger is a herb that is often used to help reduce nausea and vomiting, which in turn helps improve intake of vital nutrients at a time when these are sorely needed. And of course, maintaining a healthy microbiome (gut flora) is important - not only for reducing tummy trouble but it has also been shown to influence how an individual responds to treatment. How amazing is that!
Stress & Sleep: It goes without saying that the experience of cancer is very stressful – not only to the person who is going through the disease and subsequent treatment, but also those close to the person. There are some lovely calming nutrients and herbal medicines available to help reduce stress, promote restful sleep and support emotional resilience during challenging times. Many of these are safe to use alongside conventional treatments. There are also plenty of free stress management and coping strategies that can be used, such as guided imagery, progressive relaxation and meditation - it's simply a case of learning how.
Pain & Inflammation: Neuropathy (nerve pain) following treatment with chemotherapy affects 30-40% of patients, often remaining after treatment has finished. Inflammation in the body can be an additional cause of pain and discomfort, and of course surgery and radiotherapy can contribute to pain too. Natural, gentle and safe options are available to help reduce inflammation and manage pain.
Fatigue: Feeling flat and tired is no fun at the best of times, and significantly impacts on quality of life. And of course, sleep disruptions don't help! Ensuring optimal intake of nutrients, managing stress, promoting restful sleep, getting some exercise and good immune health all come together to help support energy.
Immune Health: The immune system takes a beating during cancer treatment, which unfortunately can heighten the susceptibility to infections like colds and flus. It is important to note that the immune system is a key player in our inner defence against cancer, and a healthy immune system plays a central role in recovery and prevention of recurrence. A compound called Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC™) which is made from the shiitake mushroom is a relatively new supplement worth considering. AHCC™ has been shown to not only reduce side effects of cancer therapy and improve immune function, but it has also been associated with a better survival rate (both as a single treatment and alongside chemotherapy).2, 3
Therapeutic Nutrition & Lifestyle Strategies
One of the areas where people often turn their focus to upon receiving a cancer diagnosis is diet. And while this is absolutely one of the best ways you can support your body (and mind) through this challenging time, it is absolutely vital to make sure you are getting quality information. There ARE certain nutritional strategies that show promise as far as supporting your body through cancer, that are safe and effective. However, what the science says so far is that there is no one single ‘diet for cancer’. In other words, certain ways of eating have shown promise for certain types of cancer but not others. At the end of the day, it is always best to work with a practitioner who can make sure you are meeting all your nutritional needs, as well as guiding you to a strategy that is both evidence-based and right for your body.
Science has also shown the benefit of exercise for cancer patients. Naturopaths call movement 'the universal vitamin' because it can help improve almost every health condition. Cancer is no exception, and numerous studies have shown that exercise targets and improves almost every conceivable outcome - including reducing the risk of recurrence, inhibiting tumour growth and improving the effectiveness of anti-cancer treatment4. It also helps to counteract some of those unpleasant side effects of treatments mentioned above - including anxiety and/or depression, fatigue, and the impact on quality of life.
Feeling Better...And Staying Healthy
One of the cornerstones of naturopathy is to ‘treat the person, not the disease’. Naturopaths are not permitted to ‘treat cancer’ (and rightly so), however this has never been our focus anyway. We ALWAYS treat the person sitting in front of us regardless of the health issue they are experiencing, and support the areas that we feel need some TLC. The wonderful thing about this approach is that it is truly holistic – after all, you are not a collection of individual body parts jumbled together – you are a wonderfully complex blend of body, mind and spirit. All of these aspects are taken into account when we work together.
Having Someone On Your Team
With the overwhelm that comes with a cancer diagnosis, it is easy to feel ‘left out of the picture’ and swamped by the sheer flood of information and a complete life u-turn. Having someone walk with you on this journey, helping you to make sense of the chaos and offering support and empowerment can be invaluable.