People with pleural mesothelioma often consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) when weighing their treatment options. The traditional mesothelioma treatments – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy – haven’t cured or vastly improved survival rates for pleural mesothelioma patients. These traditional cancer treatments are often aggressive and cause side effects that some patients want to avoid. For these reasons, people with pleural mesothelioma may consider nontraditional therapies.
The terms complementary and alternative refer to the approach in which a nontraditional therapy is applied. In complementary medicine, nontraditional therapies are used in conjunction with standard mesothelioma treatments. In alternative medicine, nontraditional therapies are used instead of standard treatment.
Another approach, called integrative medicine, unites traditional and nontraditional therapies in a multidisciplinary and tailored way that addresses the unique needs of each patient. Several cancer centers throughout the U.S. offer integrative oncology programs where specialists trained in traditional cancer treatment work side by side with alternative medicine health professionals.
A number of pleural mesothelioma survivors have integrated CAM therapies into their treatment protocol, and they stress the importance of working with licensed professionals. It is important to tell your primary doctor or oncologist about the CAM therapies you want to use to make sure they don’t interfere with any other treatment or medication.
Patients should question a doctor or health professional who claims to cure cancer with a traditional or nontraditional therapy. Guarantees of a cancer cure are a red flag, because no cure has been discovered for pleural mesothelioma. People with pleural mesothelioma are living longer than before thanks to traditional and nontraditional treatments that help manage the disease. Some mesothelioma survivors go the alternative route alone, but the majority of survivors who use CAM therapies do so in conjunction with standard treatment.
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There are many types of CAM therapies and some have been practiced for thousands of years by millions of people. CAM therapies are often classified into the following categories:
This category encompasses some of the world’s oldest medical systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Many of these systems developed outside of and before traditional medicine evolved in the U.S. In addition to Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, other alternative medical systems include:
Acupuncture is touted as an effective treatment for many forms of pain. The World Health Organization evaluated clinical trials on acupuncture and concluded that it is an effective treatment for the following conditions: adverse reactions to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, depression, headache, nausea and vomiting, neck pain and postoperative pain.
Aromatherapy aims to alter one’s mood and improve one’s physical, emotional and spiritual well being with the use of fragrant oils called essential oils, which are distilled from plants. Common fragrances include lavender, peppermint, lemon, jasmine and chamomile. The fragrant oils are either inhaled through a combination of water vapor and oils spread throughout a room or gently applied to the skin through massage or when added to bath water.
This type of therapy has not been scientifically reported to help in the treatment of cancer, but it can help increase quality of life. Clinical trials have mainly studied aromatherapy’s use in reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
A 2011 study showed that patients at all stages of cancer receiving aromatherapy experienced a reduced level of anxiety and depression and an overall improvement in mood.
When patients are able to set goals for themselves, but need some extra motivation and support, they turn to health coaching. A licensed health coach is dedicated to helping the patient reach his or her own goals to become healthier – physically, emotionally and spiritually – whether those goals are eating healthier, exercising more, learning relaxation techniques or increasing overall quality of life.
Typically, a health coach will help the patient find the answers on how to reach certain goals rather than giving the answers away. In the process, the patient may discover new goals and may reach deep within to find a satisfying solution. Health coaching relies heavily on the patient’s wisdom and ability to seek answers from within.
Mesothelioma patients may use health coaching to manage side effects of cancer treatments such as weight loss, pain, depression, anxiety or stress.
A 2001 study published in the American Society of Clinical Oncology showed that cancer patients experienced a reduction in pain after seeking help from health coaching. However, larger studies are needed to validate these effects.
Manipulative and body-based methods move or adjust parts of the body to treat various conditions. The most common body-based methods in the U.S. include chiropractic care and therapeutic massage. Other body-based methods include:
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is the use of low-voltage electrical currents for pain management. In TENS, a patient is attached to electrodes, or wires that produce electrical current, from a small battery-powered machine. The electrodes are typically placed around the area of pain. Electrical currents of varying frequencies are then sent through nerve fibers in the patient’s body to reduce pain.
The decrease in pain is caused after the electrical current stimulates the nerves in the body, reaches the patient’s brain and sends a message to block normal pain signals. The electrical current may also cause the brain to release endorphins, which are natural chemicals in the body that mask feelings of pain with feelings of euphoria.
TENS therapy is FDA-approved, and many insurance policies cover the treatment. Once a patient has received TENS therapy from a doctor, he or she can learn how to administer it on their own.
In one 2013 study of the use of TENS therapy for treatment of severe cancer-related pain, the treatment proved beneficial for 67.9 percent of patients over the course of two months.
Bowenwork is a type of muscle and connective tissue therapy much like soft tissue massage. A bowenwork therapist applies gentle movements of the thumb to the patient’s body. The purpose is to manage systems such as pain and other side effects of cancer and standard treatments such as chemotherapy.
Bowenwork aims to restore balance throughout the body via the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls over 80 percent of bodily functions. It works to decrease your body’s sympathetic response, which contributes to stress and hinders healing, while trying to increase your parasympathetic response, which contributes to rest, relaxation and healing.
A 2011 pilot study showed that bowenwork improved the mental health and quality of life of female breast cancer survivors with lymphedema. A more in-depth study is needed to further explore these findings.
Craniosacral therapy is the gentle massage and manipulation of the bones of the skull and the sacrum (lower back). Osteopathic doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists or massage therapists generally practice this type of therapy.
Treatment begins as the physician assesses the cranial rhythmic impulse (CRI), which is the inherent motion of the cerebral spinal fluid within the central nervous system. The CRI is also commonly referred to as the “breath of life.” The medical provider will then assess for patterns of dysfunction of the cranial bones and treat them appropriately to realign the bones to their original state.
This treatment method is often used to relieve pain, treat migraines, resolve ear ringing, treat vertigo and promote better sleep.
There are currently no scientific studies that show the advantages of craniosacral therapy as a form of cancer treatment. However, proponents have said it may result in a reduction in stress and an increase in relaxation, which may be beneficial to cancer patients.
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A range of techniques and methods are included in the mind-body intervention category. These therapies strive to improve the mind’s ability to influence bodily function and cope with symptoms or side effects. Some examples include meditation, relaxation therapy, hypnosis, support groups, art and music therapy and biofeedback therapy.
Biofeedback therapy involves training the body to control certain bodily functions such as muscle tension, skin temperature and an increase in heart rate or blood pressure, which may happen as a result of stress or anxiety.
Electrodes attached to the patient’s skin measure these involuntary bodily functions and display them on a monitor and provide feedback to the patient. With the help of a biofeedback therapist, the patient can begin to track their reactions and learn how to control their involuntary bodily actions through relaxation and mental techniques.
While this type of therapy has not been proven to treat cancer, some studies show that it can improve stress, tension, pain, depression, chronic pain, headaches and urinary incontinence as well as restore muscle strength after surgery.
In a 2005 study of lung cancer patients, biofeedback therapy helped patients relax and control their breathing, which allowed doctors to more easily and accurately treat the cancer with radiotherapy.
A 2006 study showed that only 6 percent of men who received biofeedback therapy after surgical treatment for prostate cancer experienced urinary incontinence, compared with 20 percent of patients who did not receive biofeedback therapy.
Pleural mesothelioma survivor J.R. O’Connor used hypnotherapy, self-hypnosis and imagery to reduce overall stress in his life. “Because stress can drive or at least encourage cancer, I take steps to reduce it wherever possible,” O’Connor said.
Energy therapies aim to balance and heal fields of energy in and around the body. This energy, often called chi or qi in Chinese medicine, hasn’t been measured in a clinical setting, but practitioners of energy therapies report reduced stress and improved quality of life after using such therapies. Energy therapies include qi gong, Reiki, therapeutic touch and Jin Shin Jyutsu.
Pleural mesothelioma survivor Mary Morvant was introduced to Jin Shin Jyutsu during a spa trip with a friend. Morvant questioned the therapy at first, but her increased energy after therapy sessions has offered such relief for her cancer-related fatigue that she no longer questions its effects. Her Jin Shin Jyutsu therapist taught her how to do some of the practice at home and now Morvant uses the therapy whenever she needs an energy boost.
Exercise therapies such as yoga and tai chi are systems of exercise and movement that frequently improve more than physical health. People who practice exercise therapies often report that mental and emotional health improves, in addition to physical health.
Clinical studies of the effects of yoga on cancer patients find that yoga can improve quality of life during and after radiation therapy. One study on lung cancer patients found that tai chi increased the body’s ability to combat tumor formation.
Many people diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma turn to some form of spiritual therapy, most commonly prayer. Prayer circles and spiritual healing are other examples of spiritual therapies.
Pleural mesothelioma survivor Judy Glezinski, who lived with the cancer for 18 years, used daily prayer to reduce stress and maintain a peaceful perspective. “I do spend a certain amount of time in prayer, which helps me a lot,” she said.
This CAM category encompasses any diet, nutrient, non-nutrient (such as minerals) or food used to prevent or treat cancer. Nutrition therapeutics also may be used to reduce cancer symptoms and ease side effects caused by treatment. Vitamins, antioxidants, herbs and phytochemicals are included in nutritional therapy, as are diets like vegetarianism, Gerson therapy and the Budwig Protocol.
Survivor James Broomer tried the Budwig Protocol following unsuccessful chemotherapy for his pleural mesothelioma. After six months of following the diet, he had gained 20 pounds, stopped using his oxygen tanks and no longer needed a pleural catheter because fluid stopped collecting in his lungs. James’ wife, Marilyn, said: “Oncologists don’t understand this disease enough. When they decide they can’t do anything for you anymore, that’s when you feel lost. And we were there. We were fortunate to find something that worked for us.”
It is important to be open and honest with your oncologist about your interest in CAM. Your medical team wants the best for you, and they can inform you if any alternative approach would conflict with your treatment. They also know how to spot questionable sources of alternative medicine that isn’t safe. The importance of working with licensed health professionals cannot be overstated.
Talk with your doctor about the CAM therapies that interest you before making any changes. If your doctor is not receptive to your curiosity in CAM, consider seeking out a doctor at one of the nation’s integrative oncology programs. These programs staff teams of specialists who clinically study and treat cancer with an approach that integrates traditional and alternative medicine.
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