Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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People with mesothelioma often turn to complementary and alternative therapies to help treat the cancer and its effects on the mind and body. People who integrate these approaches, including nutritional therapy and yoga, into treatment plans often increase their survival rates.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term most widely used to describe health care approaches that originate outside of mainstream medicine. You may have seen this terminology before, but may not know what the words "complementary" and "alternative" mean in the context of health care.

  • "Complementary" refers to approaches used in combination with mainstream medicine.

  • "Alternative" refers to approaches used in place of mainstream medicine.

Alternative medicine is not common. Most people combine non-mainstream therapies with conventional medicine. This complementary approach is also called integrative medicine.

Integrative Programs

Integrative oncology programs have sprung up throughout the U.S. in recent years. These programs unite clinically proven complementary therapies with conventional medicine to treat the whole person, not just the disease.

Survival Rates

Although complementary and alternative treatments don't promise a cure for mesothelioma, in some cases they can increase survival rates while alleviating some of the pain and suffering associated with the cancer.

Ancient cultures have used some of the following approaches for hundreds of years to treat illnesses and other maladies. Their use as modern-day palliatives for diseases like mesothelioma is often based on historical or anecdotal, rather than empirical, evidence. And yet many people swear by these natural alternatives and point to friends and family members who, they say, have greatly benefited from their use.

Fast Fact: Approximately 70 percent of people with cancer use complementary therapies.

Body-Based Therapies

Body-based therapies use various techniques to heal pain and discomfort throughout the body. The primary body-based therapies used in cancer care include TENS therapy, chiropractic care, therapeutic massage and acupuncture.

TENS Therapy

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is a therapy that relieves pain with a low-voltage electrical current. TENS therapy, along with therapeutic massage, is often administered during chiropractic care sessions. All three therapies may help relieve pain and reduce stress in people with cancer.

TENS Therapy

Acupuncture

Acupuncture studies show the therapy is helpful to people with cancer. It can effectively reduce pain and adverse reactions to radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Research also shows that acupuncture can reduce the occurrence of chemotherapy-related vomiting.

Acupuncture

Acupressure

Though less widely known in the United States, acupressure is a form of self-massage that acupuncture is based off of. Similar points throughout the body are used in both acupressure and acupuncture, but no needles are involved in acupressure. Clinical trials show that acupressure can relieve some cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, including nausea, vomiting, fatigue, anxiety and pain.

Massage
Learn more about body-based therapies

Treatment Centers Incorporating Complementary Therapies

A number of cancer centers that specialize in mesothelioma treatment offer complementary therapies through integrative oncology programs. Now that integrative health care is increasing in popularity, these centers are found throughout the country. The programs offer a variety of complementary therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, meditation and nutritional counseling. The goal is to offer therapies that treat the whole person — not just the disease — to boost quality of life and overall health.

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Brigham and Women's Hospital

75 Francis Street, Boston, MA 02115
UPMC Cancer Center

UPMC Cancer Center

5150 Centre Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15232
Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

8-684 Factor Bldg, Los Angeles, CA 90095

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Complete Healing Systems

The most commonly used complete healing systems in CAM include Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.

The Chinese developed TCM, and practitioners have used it for thousands of years to help treat cancer. The majority of cancer clinical trials conducted in China for the past 100 years combined mainstream medicine with TCM. They found that certain TCM herbs, mind-body techniques, dietary changes and acupuncture can help people with cancer.

Ayurveda originated in India, and for thousands of years it too has helped people with cancer feel better. Ayurvedic doctors treat cancer with surgery, herbal medicine, dietary changes, bodily-cleansing therapies and lifestyle changes.

Learn more about complete healing systems

Emotional Effects Therapies

Emotional effects therapies include techniques that positively impact the emotional health and well-being of a person. This category includes meditation, counseling and pet therapy.

Meditation techniques can help people cope with anxiety, depression and pain caused by cancer. Whether spiritually-focused or not, meditation may help people attain a better outlook, and this can greatly reduce stress. Ask your doctor if any meditation education programs, such as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique, are available in your area.

Counseling is a therapy that helps people facing cancer better cope with the experience. During sessions, counselors help people process their emotions with constructive and effective techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Many cancer centers offer free counseling services to patients.

Pet Therapy

Pet therapy is quite simple: It involves spending time with animals with the goal of improving the mood of a patient. Dogs and cats are most commonly present at pet therapy sessions, but nearly any animal can bring temporary comfort to someone dealing with cancer. Examples of pet therapy include watching fish swim or petting a cat. Ask your treatment center if pet therapy is available.

Learn more about emotional effects therapies

Energy Therapies

Energy therapies strive to produce a state of balance and well-being within a person. The primary energy therapies used by people facing cancer include music and sound therapy, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki and Jin Shin Jyutsu.

Music therapy involves listening to, playing, singing and talking about music in the company of a professionally trained music therapist. The therapy can reduce stress, support well-being and may improve healing or help reduce severity of symptoms. Sound energy therapy is similar in that patients listen to music or create it themselves, but specific instruments or tones are used to promote a state of relaxation.

Therapeutic Touch and Reiki are similar healing modalities that theoretically send healing energy from the hands of a healer to a patient’s body. People who receive these therapies report deep states of peace and relaxation during and after the therapy. Some claim lasting effects on the perception of stress.

Jin Shin Jyutsu is similar to acupressure. Energy pathways and pressure points are used to clear blockages and balance energy within the body. Trained practitioners can administer the therapy and teach patients how to do Jin Shin Jyutsu at home. One mesothelioma patient found the therapy was effective at relieving fatigue and easing digestion problems caused by chemotherapy.

Learn more about energy therapies

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Homeopathy

Patient Advocate Karen Selby explains alternative treatments to mesothelioma patients.

Homeopathy, from the Greek words "homeo" (similar) and "pathos" (suffering), is a system of medicine that relies on two ideologies: the principle of similars and the principle of dilution. This therapeutic method was developed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann over 200 years ago and has been offered in the United States since the early 19th century. According to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 4.8 million Americans used homeopathy in the previous year.

Homeopathic remedies are derived from natural substances that come from plants, minerals or animals. They are generally considered safe and unlikely to cause severe adverse reactions or interfere with conventional drugs.

However, the effectiveness of homeopathic treatment is unsupported by the collective weight of modern scientific research. From its beginnings, homeopathy was ridiculed as "quackery" by the vast majority of the medical establishment. But while homeopathy is not considered an acceptable medical practice in some parts of the world, in others (a few European countries, for example) it is even a reimbursable medical expense under their public health services. In India, homeopathy is considered one of its national systems of medicine.

Learn more about homeopathy

Mind-Body Therapies

Yoga

Mind-body therapies are practices designed to facilitate the union of body and mind. The most commonly studied types of mind-body therapies in cancer treatment include yoga, qigong and tai chi.

Yoga’s origins trace back thousands of years to ancient India. The practice is designed to enhance mindfulness through meditation and movement. Gentle yoga styles are suggested to cancer patients, because more athletic styles of yoga are often too strenuous for people undergoing or recovering from cancer treatments. Studies examining the effects of yoga on people with cancer show it can improve sleep and quality of life, reduce stress and fatigue, enhance exhalation of air and increase well-being.

Qigong and tai chi are similar practices that unite movement with mindfulness and breathing. The disciplines originated in China and have been widely used for centuries. Studies of qigong and tai chi in people with cancer reveal that it can enhance quality of life, reduce stress chemicals, lessen fatigue and signs of depression, and improve survival rates in liver cancer patients.

Learn more about mind-body therapies

Naturopathic and Osteopathic Medicines

Naturopathic and osteopathic medicines are two different holistic approaches to health care that offer complementary therapies to mainstream cancer care. The two disciplines are similar in their natural and holistic approach to treating the patient, not just the ailment.

Naturopathic medicine focuses on disease prevention and whole-body health through natural treatments and teaching good health habits to patients. Naturopathic doctors may prescribe mainstream medicines, but commonly suggest effective natural treatments before pharmaceuticals are used. People looking for a physician who takes a natural approach and doesn’t overprescribe pharmaceuticals will find value in a naturopathic doctor.

Osteopathic medicine takes an approach to health care that emphasizes the integrated nature of the human body. This holistic approach includes the importance of the musculoskeletal system, a facet that is relatively unique in mainstream health care. Like naturopathic doctors, osteopathic doctors prefer to take a natural approach to healing before pharmaceuticals are considered. A patient experiencing chemotherapy-related nausea may be recommended dietary changes and natural remedies like teas and herbs. Osteopathic manipulation might be advised to patients with muscular or skeletal misalignments. For example, some people who experience acid reflux might benefit from an osteopathic adjustment to align the muscle groups that anchor the diaphragm.

Nutrition

Fresh Vegetables

Adequate and balanced nutrition is important before, during and after cancer treatment. Oncologists are increasingly acknowledging the importance of a healthy diet in cancer health care. Some cancer centers even employ registered dieticians to help patients create tailored meal plans.

Learn more about how nutrition can help people with cancer

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is a complementary therapy that may lessen cancer symptoms and enhance certain cancer treatments. These naturally-sourced medicines are made from herbs and administered in forms such as capsules, teas, tinctures (concentrates of herbs in an alcohol solution) and creams. Scientific studies have proven certain herbs are effective at reducing cancer symptoms and improving the effects of cancer treatment.

Medical cannabis is considered an herbal medicine, and it can offer significant pain and nausea relief to people with cancer. Clinical studies have proven the herb effectively reduces pain, eases nausea, boosts appetite during chemotherapy and improves sleep.

Learn more about herbal medicine

What to Know Before Choosing Any CAM Therapy

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It is important to reiterate that the above natural remedies and medicines are still often considered "folk cures" by the conventional medical community. In many cases, scientific studies of these substances have not definitively shown them to be effective mesothelioma treatments. Their use may actually be detrimental to a patient, by delaying, or avoiding, a more accepted form of treatment.

Before choosing any CAM therapy, a mesothelioma patient should consult with his or her medical practitioner or health care provider and fully explore the pros and cons of each substance in question. You and your doctor should investigate its origins and manufacture, and understand prescribed dosages and any inherent dangers or side effects. If choosing a homeopathic health provider, similar investigation of the practitioner's training and background must be made.

Costs and Benefits of CAM

Even without conclusive proof of the medical benefits and cost effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicines like those listed above, Americans are already spending more than $34 billion annually on them and other CAM therapies. And since they are generally not covered by most health insurance policies, and must be paid for out-of-pocket, it is safe to assume their benefits tend to outweigh their costs, at least in the minds of these consumers. Theoretically, CAM therapies would seem to offer significant cost savings when compared to conventional treatments because they avoid high technology, offer relatively inexpensive remedies made from natural substances and attempt to harness the body's natural ability to heal itself.

Mesothelioma Survivors Who Used CAM Therapy

For any mesothelioma sufferer who is considering CAM therapy, it is heartening to know there have been personal successes in this area. In fact, two well-known mesothelioma patients and authors, who lived for years after their initial diagnoses, list natural medicines as part of their alternative treatment regimens. A third patient, who is a 20-year survivor, credits his survival to natural methods only.

Paul Kraus

Paul Kraus, a former asbestos worker from Australia, is still alive a decade after he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. Kraus eschewed all of the traditional cancer therapies, choosing instead to employ a host of alternative treatments including taking vitamins, herbs, amino acids, homeopathic supplements and drinking large quantities of carrot, beetroot and green juices. His book is entitled, "Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers: A Patient's Guide."

Mesothelioma survivor Paul Kraus
Mesothelioma survivor Judy Glezinski

Judy Glezinkski

Judy Glezinski, who was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, underwent both surgery and radiation therapy. She also drank anti-oxidant rich mangosteen juice made from the tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia and noticed that, for a time, her tumors showed very little growth. Her story is recounted in a book, "Surviving Mesothelioma: Making Your Own Miracle."

Wayne Neal

Wayne Neal, a lifelong electrician from the Cincinnati area, was forced into an early retirement by health problems that later were diagnosed as peritoneal mesothelioma in 1991. Now at age 83, he continues to thrive, giving credit to a daily ration of red tart cherries from Michigan rich in antioxidants like melatonin. He has eaten 10-12 cherries every night for the last 20 years, supplementing his healthy diet of whole grain foods and plenty of vegetables.

Wayne N.

There is something almost magical in these cherries...I don't know what the science is, but I'm a real believer. I don't exactly know how, or why they work, but they do. I know they can stop cancer, and I've seen them help other people with other illnesses, too.

Wayne Neal
Mesothelioma Survivor
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Additional Resources


Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. If you have a story idea for Michelle, please email her at michelle@asbestos.com.

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