We as medical professionals can—and should—be doing more for patients undergoing treatment for cancer and experiencing pain as a result. A full third of cancer patients experience pain related to their condition, whether from the cancer itself or from treatment, and that proportion leaps to two-thirds when the individuals are terminally ill. It’s time we take more seriously the need to alleviate this pain, and intrinsic to that is taking seriously an integrative approach to medical care, and the availability of complementary and alternative therapies with a proven capacity to provide relief.
Many cancer patients use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and some evidence suggests it may relieve fatigue.
A definition that I believe simply and accurately describes integrative medicine comes from Karen Washburn, director of QLife/Palliative Care at Lee Memorial Health System: integrative medicine is “medical care that combines the very best scientific medicine with evidence-based complementary therapies.” In other words, an integrative approach to medicine is an effort to treat the whole person.
An array of complementary treatments are available that can, in their various combinations, address cancer pain in an integrative way. They include guided imagery, support groups, acupuncture, massage and other forms of touch therapy. In contrast to their broad, unfair association with the world of dream catchers and pseudo-science, all of these therapies are evidence-backed (1), and the body of research that supports their use is only continuing to grow.
One of the truly unfortunate byproducts of the limited research on these topics is that myths have persisted that can scare away patients, and even some in the medical community – like the one that massage and other forms of touch therapy spread cancer (to be clear, they don’t!).
The reality is that many complementary treatments for cancer pain deserve more primetime attention. They include:
Massage therapy and acupuncture:
These forms of touch therapy can help cancer patients achieve a longer range of survivability, find greater comfort as they go through the treatment process, and experience fewer extreme side effects than those who don’t have access to such therapies. (Again, these findings are supported by research.) They should be made available to patients in hospice, as well as those who have been diagnosed – all of them stand to benefit. Massages might be administered as patients are getting chemotherapy infused into their bodies or even afterwards. The initial contact with the side effects of chemotherapy can be overwhelming and painful, and patients occasionally elect to stop their cancer treatment as a result. Massage can help a person tolerate the impact of those side effects. Acupuncture, too, has demonstrated health benefits in patients dealing with cancer.
Though it is hardly controversial to note that regular exercise helps reduce pain and promote healthfulness, exercise is still too infrequently recommended by doctors as part of a treatment plan for pain reduction in cancer patients. But the fact is that exercise’s ability to increase blood circulation, keep bones and muscles strong, decrease fatigue, and alleviate anxiety and depression ought to make it near-indispensible for cancer patients. Indeed, the American Cancer Society promotes the benefits of exercise for those battling cancer. Good exercise practices for cancer patients to start with are qi gong, yoga and tai chi, which are low-impact activities that help support the immune system and restore balance.
Mindfulness and meditation:
These practices are psychological support tools that help people in stressful situations, such as undergoing cancer treatment, deal with the various challenges that they are going through. When people become rigidly obsessed with death, or what they or their loved ones are going to do faced with difficult scenarios, they become worn-down psychologically and depleted of the energy and resilience necessary to face the next treatment. A mindfulness or meditation practice can help cancer patients stay focused on the moment, in the moment they can actually control.
Other complementary and alternative treatments for cancer patients include chiropractic treatment, biofeedback, aromatherapy, guided relaxation, herbal remedies, and much more. The variety is vast enough to allow cancer patients and their healthcare providers to select the complement of holistic, integrated treatments that work best for a particular individual.
What is common to these different methods is the fact that they exist to help support the part of an individual that’s healthy. While Western medicine plays a critical role in fighting cancer, the side effects of these treatments on their own can often require rest and recovery, and we need to do more to ensure that patients are benefiting from other types of treatments so that together, we can help patients achieve a balanced recovery.
(1) Efficacy of complementary and alternative medicine therapies in relieving cancer pain: a systematic review