A Quick Guide to Integrative Oncology: Bringing Together Conventional and Complementary Therapies

Integrative oncology is no longer just a buzzword in modern healthcare. It represents a holistic approach to cancer care that seeks to treat the whole patient: body, mind, and spirit.

But what exactly does it entail, and how does it differ from the traditional treatments of the past? Here we look at how an integrative approach is being more widely used to provide the support that cancer patients need.

Understanding Integrative Oncology

In short, integrative oncology brings together the principles of conventional medicine with complementary therapies. This approach operates synergistically with standard treatments like surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Its objectives aim to not just treat the disease but also alleviate side effects, provide relief from distress, and potentially enhance treatment outcomes and patient adherence. For example, the role of nutrition in recovery and coping with invasive treatments such as chemotherapy are now more widely understood for their benefits.

It’s important to understand what we’re talking about here:

  1. Conventional Cancer Therapies: These are the tried-and-tested methods backed by clinical research. Examples include chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, immunotherapy and hormonal therapy. The tools that we have to fight cancer nowadays have evolved substantially even over the last decade or two.
  2. Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM): Often overlooked in traditional medical education, these therapies have the potential to offer cancer patients additional benefits. Broadly, CAM therapies can be subdivided into:
    • Complementary Medicines: These are often nowadays paired with conventional treatments. An example would be the use of acupuncture to mitigate chemotherapy-induced nausea.
    • Alternative Medicine: These therapies substitute conventional treatments, something which can be a lot more problematic when treating such a serious condition like cancer. A classic case would be opting for vitamin infusions over the recommended oncology treatment.
  3. Integrative Oncology: This holistic approach emphasises supporting the patient in all aspects—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Cancer care in the UK certainly now features integrative medicine approaches, for example, working with nutritional therapists.

Integrative Therapies Used in Cancer Care

  • Psychological Techniques: Encompassing mindfulness, meditation, hypnosis, yoga, and biofeedback.
  • Biological-Based Practices: This includes switching to specialised diets, certain herbs and vitamins.
  • Physical Therapies: These range from massages and chiropractic adjustments to reflexology.
  • Traditional Systems: This category spans Chinese medicine practices like acupuncture, as well as homoeopathy and naturopathy.

Evaluating Integrative Therapies

It’s important to note that, while many integrative therapies contribute positively to patient well-being, some might entail risks. It’s imperative to have an open dialogue with your GP and oncology about any therapies you might be considering outside of the traditional medical approach.

Certain treatments, especially those administered orally or intravenously, could potentially clash with standard cancer treatments. They might amplify or nullify the treatment’s efficacy or skew certain blood test results. Moreover, these therapies might bring their own set of side effects into the mix. For example, with chemotherapy, certain food choices can have an impact on efficacy.

Other examples include deep tissue massage that might exacerbate lymphedema or acupuncture which could pose infection risks for those with depleted white blood cells.

Transparent communication with your oncology team is pivotal when integrating these therapies into cancer care. Many oncology professionals are increasingly supportive of integrating them safely into treatment plans, especially when it comes to nutrition. That doesn’t mean you should just go ahead an try something new – it could have a detrimental effect.

It’s also worth noting that there are some spurious claims on the internet when it comes to cancer care. These often play on the distress of patients trying to find a cure for their condition. It’s critical to talk to the experts if you are considering any approach like this.

The Role of the Naturopath in Cancer Care

It’s not surprising, however, to learn that around 80% of individuals diagnosed with cancer opt to incorporate Naturopathy alongside their standard treatments at least in part. A lot of this focuses on lifestyle changes and understanding better the role of proper nutrition during cancer treatment.

Distinct from mainstream healthcare, naturopathic medicine delves into an all-encompassing approach, targeting not just the body but also the mind and spirit. Its core principles revolve around prevention, optimal health, and holistic treatments. The realm of naturopathy encompasses various therapeutic measures including, but not limited to:

  • Clinical Nutrition: Crafting a dietary plan based on individual needs.
  • Botanical Medicine: Utilising the healing properties of plants.
  • Physical Medicine: Employing physical methods like massage for treatment.
  • Lifestyle Counselling: Providing guidance to cultivate a healthier daily routine.

The essence of integrative oncology lies in its team-based approach where every healthcare provider collaborates to enhance the patient’s quality of life. This more harmonised approach seeks to work on every aspect of health: physical, psychological, and emotional. This can help people at all stages of cancer, from the diagnosis through to treatment and recovery or end of life care:

  1. Diagnosis Phase: Patient education and formulating a comprehensive care blueprint.
  2. Active Treatment Phase: Minimising adverse reactions and bolstering the success of mainstream treatments.
  3. Post-Treatment Phase: Aiding recuperation and instilling habits to prevent disease recurrence.

While the oncology team primarily aims at tumour removal and mitigation, the naturopath can help augment this approach. They can introduce supportive therapies to alleviate side effects, reinforce standard care, and hopefully make things easier for the patient.

The role of integrative oncology is constantly evolving, bringing natural therapies to complement modern medical advancements. In the past, blunt tools like chemotherapy were thought to be the only chance of survival for anyone diagnosed with cancer. Today we have a range of amazing therapies that really do make such a big difference in people’s lives.

As a nutritional therapist, I trained at the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London and have also received additional training in cancer and integrative oncology at the Peat Institute. I specialise in particular in helping people who have been diagnosed with breast or thyroid cancer, working alongside medical professionals to provide additional support to women.

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