Integrative cancer treatment is a step above mainstream treatment as far as the patient is concerned. This is because it is both a science and a philosophy that focuses on the individual patient and their special needs in simultaneously treating the cancer and strengthening their mind, body and soul to better fight the cancer.
Integrative medicine is the “parent” discipline that gives rise to Integrative Oncology. The concept raises eyebrows in the “died-in-the-wool” mainstream medical community because it smacks of “alternative”, which is not the intent among legitimate integrative practitioners. Integrative medicine is really nothing more than “good medicine”, but is defined to differentiate between pill pushing symptom management oriented “sick care” and patient oriented “health care”. Specifically, integrative medicine is healing-oriented and takes into account the whole person (hence the term “holistic” or “wholistic”), including all aspects of lifestyle which impacts prevention and health restoration. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by scientific research evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies for the individual.
So, as an outgrowth of integrative medicine, it bears repeating over and over that integrative cancer treatment, other wise known as “integrative oncology” is NOT “alternative oncology”. Instead it is a patient centered cancer care concept which focuses on YOU and starts with cutting edge mainstream therapy to help eliminate your cancer. But YOU are not a cancer or a tumor, so there is much more to be done in helping YOU in your anti-cancer journey.
Integrative oncology augments mainstream therapies with complementary and natural cancer treatment approaches in order to improve outcomes by seeking to alleviate side effects, improve overall health, improve mindset, possibly improve cancer cure rates, and enhance quality and length of life in survivorship. The focus of legitimate practitioners is to discriminate between completely implausible dis-proven therapies and plausible or proven treatments.
Here is a visual that might help you understand how this works. Imagine a nice field of green grass, cut to perfection and picture perfect. Next imagine ugly crab-grass infesting the green pasture, like the image to the left shows. The grassy field is your body and the crab-grass is disease, including cancer the crab. When fighting crab-grass, usually you need weed or crab-grass killer and you might even rip some of the bigger areas out to get an immediate effect. When you do that you also need to nurture the grass and try to get it to be strong to resist the crab-grass and make it look as good as possible. This is EXACTLY what happens in cancer treatment. You can prevent crab-grass or cancer in the first place by keeping the grassy field, your body, as strong as possible with appropriate feeding and nurturing. But once crab-grass or cancer gets hold, you will need weed-killer, or chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, respectively to get rid of it. With integrative oncology, while we fight the cancer with industrial strength treatment, you need to keep your body, your green beautiful grassy field, as pristine and as strong as possible. AFTER treatment this is even more important to prevent the crab-grass or cancer from coming back. Integrative oncology techniques and strategies help you with this.
The key is involvement of scientific principles in order to determine what works, what doesn’t, what is plausible vs. implausible and what is of most benefit vs. potential harm. As such the term “alternative” may not serve well because it has tended to include a garbage can of treatments that have been “dreamed up” by less than qualified people. Having said that, some therapies that have been called “alternative” are in reality plausible or proven natural based treatments. Sometimes it is all but impossible to discriminate between the two and requires some trained investigation to determine the difference. This can be extensively facilitated by a trained integrative oncologist who deeply understands cancer as well as integrative natural approaches to fighting disease and achieving wellness.
In many countries integrative medicine has been the standard of care, and is taught in medical schools and post graduate residency programs. In these countries, integrative cancer treatment is also a standard. In the United States it was slowed by the Flexner Report which was a rather narrowly focused government funded attempt to feature mainstream medicine advancement. Integrative approaches have been vilified and all but disappeared from cancer treatment for many decades.
Integrative cancer treatment seeks to involve the following in cancer care:
- natural health products such as vitamins, minerals and botanicals
- nutritional treatment and support
- acupuncture and acupressure
- meditation and other mind-body strategies
- music therapy
- touch therapies such as massage
- fitness therapies such as yoga
Here’s a video review of integrative oncology from Memorial Sloan Kettering Center for Integrative Medicine and its founding Director, Dr Barrie Cassileth. The link to the site she mentions about herbs is as follows: ABOUT HERBS IN CANCER
To some extent there is a convergence that is accelerating between mainstream and natural anti-cancer strategies. It has long been recognized that certain foods, herbs and micro-nutrients have medicinal properties. The list is long and includes vital medicines including anti-biotics, some mainstream anti-cancer agents (e.g. Taxol), and down to commonly used daily medicines like aspirin. As we learn more about the interaction between the environment and our physiology, our biochemistry and our genetics, we see an ever broadening opportunity to gain and maintain health. The trick is to determine what degree of splitting out chemicals and nutrients is beneficial vs. considering the wonderful synergies that Mother Nature built in to what we eat and drink. As we come to understand the biochemical makeup of macro and micro-nutrients, we can better appreciate the power of food as medicine. While this is a much better preventative than cancer treatment strategy, there is no question that one can help their body fight cancer using natural support.
Many other complementary and natural approaches are easy to recommend simply because their risk is so very low and potential benefit is so great. For example, how can one argue against laugh therapy to help get through treatment? In other cases, while we do not completely understand the treatment, we have scientific evidence that they work as is the case with acupuncture and acupressure to relieve pain and nausea among other things. In addition, the risk of these integrative cancer treatments is also very low.
On the other hand, some natural and complementary treatments need further review. Not everything can be subjected to a clinical trial, but levels of scientific evidence are manifold. For example, do we really ever need to perform a clinical trial to determine if using parachutes reduces the risk of death when jumping from an airplane? NO! We know there is plausibility based on the science of physics. In other cases, epidemiologic data is sufficient. For example, there were never any large scale randomized clinical trials to determine if the Pap smear helps prevent cervical cancer. Yet, it has been a lifesaver for millions of women. Finally, even if the therapy is only theoretically beneficial, it is worth considering if the risk is acceptable. However, if the risk is high, caution and informed consent are critical.
One thing is crucial to understand about integrative cancer treatment. No ethical and credible practitioner would ever recommend forgoing lifesaving surgery or mainstream therapy in favor of using an unproven or dis-proven “alternative” treatment. While radical nutritional therapy can theoretically influence the progression of cancer, in the overwhelming majority of people (i.e. 99.99999%) when cancer is diagnosed it is beyond this being a reasonable approach. On the other hand, as a primary prevention strategy, obviously nutrition and lifestyle are crucial. Whether this translates to lengthening and improving quality of survivorship after mainstream therapy remains to be seen but there is encouraging developing data in this regard. So, after the cancer seems to have been controlled or eradicated, considering lifestyle modifications is very prudent.
Everyone can grasp the concept of diet, supplements, herbals/botanicals, exercise, but in the area of other complementary modalities like acupuncture, Reiki, yoga, listen to what patients have to say. This video is from the University of Pennsylvania. Many centers now have integrative programs for this reason.