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Complementary Medicine Reduces Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Credit: Bill Branson, National Cancer Institute

The field known as integrative oncology involves a combination of conventional antitumor therapies and complementary therapies used to enhance wellness, improve quality of life, and relieve disease symptoms and treatment side effects. A study published this week in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that integrative oncology facilitated adherence to conventional cancer treatment and reduced treatment-related adverse effects.

The study, by Elio Rossi, MD and colleagues at the Clinic for Complementary Medicine and Diet in Oncology at the Hospital of Lucca in Lucca, Italy, involved 357 patients who visited the clinic from September 2013 to December 2017. The majority of patients were seen for cancers of the breast (57.1%), colon (7.3%), lung (5.0%), ovary (3.9%), stomach (2.5%), prostate (2.2%), and uterus (2.5%). Nearly all patients (91.6%) were receiving or had just completed one or more forms of conventional cancer therapy, including chemotherapy (66.6%), endocrine therapy (43.1%), and radiotherapy (4.2%).

Patients were offered integrative complementary treatment involving therapies such as homeopathic remedies, botanicals and other food supplements, and acupuncture, along with specific integrative protocols to prepare patients for chemotherapy, endocrine therapy, and radiotherapy. All patients were advised to reduce intake of inflammation-inducing foods and increase consumption of foods high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Some received psychological counseling as needed. Patients undergoing radiotherapy were given low-potency homeopathic treatment with radium bromatum and belladonna (sometimes replaced by Apis mellifica or Cantharis) along with an alkalizing treatment based on citric acid and baking soda. This treatment was followed by calendula cream, occasionally alternated with aloe gel.

Evaluation of patients' clinical conditions prior to and following integrative complementary treatment revealed significant reductions in nausea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, mucositis, hot flashes, joint pain, dysgeusia, neuropathy, and all symptoms. In patients undergoing radiotherapy, toxicity levels and severity of radiodermatitis were substantially lower in patients receiving integrative treatment than in patients receiving conventional treatment alone. Of 21 patients who either refused or discontinued conventional cancer treatment against oncologist recommendations, 7 (41.2%) of 17 patients who followed up accepted standard oncologic treatments after the integrative oncology visit.

The study authors note that most of the 21 patients (6.2% of the study population) who came to their clinic intending to request an "alternative" treatment in lieu of conventional cancer treatment were not receiving professional care from either a complementary medicine expert or an oncologist. The researchers connect this result to a recent study by Skyler Johnson, MD and colleagues, who found that cancer patients using complementary medicines had increased refusal rates for conventional cancer treatments.

In their published paper, Dr. Rossi and colleagues emphasize that complementary medicine experts "are able to promote a dialogue with these patients who are typically quite diffident toward classical oncology. In addition to introducing this role of a medical doctor who is authoritative and competent in [complementary medicine], they can convey the possible serious consequences of self-help solutions and nonprofessional, internet-sourced, and word-of-mouth advice." The authors suggest that medical doctors who are experts in complementary medicine can explore cancer patients' use and perceptions of these treatments. They can also inform patients about potential interactions between conventional and complementary treatments.

The authors conclude, "The integration of evidence-based complementary treatments seems to provide an effective response to cancer patients' demand for a reduction of the adverse effects of anticancer treatments and the symptoms of cancer itself, thus improving patients' quality of life and combining safety and equity of access within public health care systems. It is, therefore, necessary for physicians (primarily oncologists) and other healthcare professionals in this field to be appropriately informed about the potential benefits of [complementary medicines]."

For More Information

Rossi E, Noberasco C, Picchi M, et al (2018). Complementary and integrative medicine to reduce adverse effects of anticancer therapy. J Altern Complement Med, 24(9-10):933-941. DOI:10.1089/acm.2018.0143

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