There are choices you can make to help yourself with cancer. Medical practitioners will suggest some of these to you. There are many truly and remarkably worthwhile self-help and complementary options. We will mention some possibilities here, but please do see our Health Information we Trust lists and check out our Complementary Techniques guide for all powerful and safe self-help options available.
With medical therapies you have the expertise of your doctor and cancer specialists to determine the best course of treatment for you. With Self-Help, as the name implies, you are the expert. You test what works for you. Give things a chance, but if you’re not getting results – move on.
Complementary Therapies / alternative Medicine
One of the gold-standard organisations for the combining of medical and complementary approaches to cancer is Penny Brohn Cancer Care (formerly the Bristol Cancer Help Centre). Their way of working is called The Bristol Approach. We start with some of their description of the Approach because it may be everything you need in one place – and because it demonstrates clearly that many elements can be combined to improve the experience of cancer and the effectiveness of medical treatment.
The Bristol Approach, developed by doctors, nurses, therapists and people with cancer, is a combination of complementary therapies and self-help techniques. It is designed to work alongside medical treatment and is supported by leading oncologists and others in the healthcare field.
The Approach is a programme of lifestyle advice, information, complementary therapies and self-help techniques which:
- Provides support through your treatment and recovery
- Supports positive health, physical and psychological well-being
The courses at Penny Brohn Cancer Care help people to:
- Cope with the emotional aspects of a cancer diagnosis
- Manage fear and anxiety
- Deal with the specific problems and challenges a cancer diagnosis brings
- Manage and reduce symptoms and treatment side-effects
- Improve health and energy
With all of this support we have seen that it is possible to change the way you live with cancer. Individual elements of the Bristol Approach include:
- Doctor sessions
- Nutritional advice
- Group work
- Natural pain management
- Gentle exercise
- Complementary therapies:
- Music therapy
- Art therapy
The Bristol Approach helps you combine these elements to provide a complete programme of tailored support – whether you have had a cancer diagnosis or are supporting someone with cancer.
It’s clear that complementary and self-help techniques are an essential part of cancer therapy. Their highly respected use in the Bristol Approach may help to substantiate that these are not side issues. Many people living with cancer are getting life-changing benefits from complementary techniques with the help of practitioners, programmes other than Bristol, or through their own discoveries. Start your own self-help journey. You’ll be glad you did.
People often speak of feeling that they have lost control of their life when they have cancer. It may be bewildering to spend time in hospitals, which can seem frightening and impersonal, and to meet so many different health professionals, as well as coping with the high-tech machinery and techniques used in cancer treatment. At the same time, it can be difficult to cope with the implications of the illness itself.
Complementary therapists usually work with the person as a whole, not just the part of the body with the cancer. A complementary therapist who listens and cares may help you cope with some of those difficult feelings, which can be an effective way of getting back some control.
Some hospitals and hospices provide complementary therapies as part of cancer care, alongside conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Complementary therapies can:
- Help you feel better and improve your quality of life
- Improve your general health
- Give you a sense of control over what is happening to you
- Reduce stress, tension, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and make you feel more relaxed
- Help to reduce the symptoms of cancer, such as pain, feeling sick, breathlessness, constipation, diarrhoea, tiredness and poor appetite
- Help to reduce some of the side effects of cancer treatment.
There may be complementary therapies that are not suitable if you have a particular type of cancer or during a particular treatment. It is important to tell your hospital specialist if you are having some form of complementary therapy. It is also important to tell your complementary therapist that you have cancer.
Putting the above in bold is our emphasis. This is the biggest caution with regard to complementary techniques. Take it seriously and you can safely develop you own expertise.
Use our tools – Health Information we Trust list and Complementary Techniques guide – to find therapies, therapists or self-help techniques that feel right for you. Feel wrong? Don’t waste time. Move on. With techniques like meditation and exercise you can become your own expert and teacher very quickly.
It is a good idea to ask how much a therapy session will cost you before you book, and to get some idea of how often you may need to have the therapy. Some complementary therapies can be very expensive if used over a long period of time.
Some hospitals and hospices offer therapies free of charge or you may be asked to make a small financial contribution. Some cancer support groups offer complementary therapies free or make a small charge. Some private practitioners offer a sliding scale of charges.
We draw from our own pages on Chronic Pain (which we recommend if we do say so ourselves) when we say that practitioner qualifications are important but: not all the techniques which could be helpful have professional associations regulating their teaching and practice. There are no absolutely clear dividing lines here, but basically:
Techniques you learn to do and practice yourself, like Tai Chi and Meditation, can’t really be regulated to great effect. That a teacher is a member of an organisation may well be a good thing, but the best teacher for you may well not have the seal of approval of any self-appointed group. You really do have to test, trust yourself, and move on if you’re not comfortable.
Treatment Techniques, where you are being treated by a therapist, usually can be and are regulated. For treatments including osteopathy, physiotherapy, hypnotherapy, psychotherapy and anything else where a practitioner is giving you any kind of therapy, professional qualification and regulation does absolutely matter. In our Health Information we Trust lists you’ll find professional bodies to help you be sure you’re in qualified hands.
Practices like physiotherapy, occupational therapy, counselling, dieticians, psychotherapy etc are really part of your extended medical treatment. While we give ways to find these for yourself, your doctor or medical team can be expected to help with referrals.
We can’t fully describe all the techniques available and what they can do for you here, but in addition to the cancer organisations we’ve recommended we’re confident about our Complementary Techniques and Therapies Guide and our Health IT list to help you make a good start. Also click on those resources for:
Exercise – an important aspect of self-help. The right kind in the right amount can be good for your physical resilience and great for your spirit. Use our resources to find what appeals. We know from experience that there are techniques you can use whatever your state of health.
A great guide to what might work best for you is your Physiotherapist. Aside from giving you therapeutic exercises, your physio should be able to consider any exercise form with you in terms of do’s and don’ts. Your doctor can advise on the level of activity you might find beneficial.
As we use it, the term ‘Alternative Therapy’ means that it is used as an alternative to medical therapies. ‘Complementary Therapies’, on the other hand, work with and complement medical therapy.
The line between Alternative and Complementary therapies is in fact often not that clear. There are alternative therapists who use their therapies with respect for conventional medical or complementary therapies. Other practitioners advise their patients to give up or make less use of conventional treatments. A bigger mistake is hard to imagine, and the suffering this can and has caused is inexcusable. Even if alternative therapies don’t try to replace the basic ones, they can cause severe side effects and make people extremely unwell.
Some alternative therapies are very cleverly marketed so that when you read about them or are told about them, they seem to be very effective with proven results. The claims made about some therapies may give patients false hope. People with cancer can be very vulnerable, especially if they have been told that their cancer cannot be cured with conventional therapies. Don’t be misled and harmed by promises of a miracle cure. No reputable therapist would claim to be able to cure cancer.
There are various reasons for wanting to try alternative therapies. Sometimes it is because people feel that conventional treatment cannot help them or is harmful. This is understandable, as many chemotherapy drugs are toxic and can cause unpleasant side effects. The idea of having radiotherapy can also be frightening. Medical treatments, however, can effectively deal with cancer and effectively cure many forms if caught in time.
If a cancer is terminal, the wilder reaches of alternative therapies might be tempting. They offer hope, and some of the them may do no harm. Others could be very harmful, substituting huge unnecessary suffering for good palliative care. At the very least check any alternative therapy withMedlinePlus or one of our other Health Information we Trust resources.
Supplements, Snake-oils and Diets
Nutritional Supplements, in the sense of supplementary protein and other diet fortifiers, can be important for cancer. Some vitamin or other dietary supplements may help some people in coping with their surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Diet, after all, really matters when dealing with cancer. We are talking here about conventional nutritional supplements in conventional amounts, which have been checked with your doctor.
To find out which vitamins or supplements show good evidence of helping, you could do well to start with Medline Plus or NHS. Our sources are pretty blunt about the value of less conventional supplements. They don’t dismiss, but they are sharp and clear on the subject, saying that:
A number of the drugs used by conventional Western medicine for cancer treatment come from plants originally. For example the vinca alkaloids are a group of drugs extracted from the periwinkle plant, vinca rosea.This group includes the chemotherapy drugs vincristine, vinblastine, vindesine and vinorelbine. Another group of chemotherapy drugs are the taxanes; Taxol and Taxotere which originate from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. So some chemotherapy drugs do actually have natural origins.
As far as herbal medicines are concerned, there are no preparations that have been scientifically proven to help treat cancer. Despite this a recent survey in the UK has suggested that more than a third of people being treated for cancer are supplementing their conventional therapy with herbal treatments, the most commonly used being echinacea, evening primrose oil, milk thistle and essiac.
Although there is no evidence that any of these compounds actually help in the treatment of cancer, it is usually the case that they won’t actually do any harm. However, this is not always true. Some herbal remedies do contain chemicals that can react with conventional drugs and may lead to harmful side-effects. For example echinacea can interfere with some conventional treatments for lymphoma, while evening primrose oil and ginkgo can react with drugs like warfarin (used to treat or prevent thrombosis and blood clots) and aspirin, increasing the risk of abnormal bleeding.
If you feel that you would like to try supplementing your treatment with herbal preparations then do mention this to your doctors, so they can check that the remedies you are intending to use will not have harmful effects on any of the other medicines you are taking.
Snake oils, as we use the term, are alternative remedies promising miracles, cures for cancer and other wonders. They can be remarkably convincing and believable, and have caused a great deal of confusion, distress and suffering. At best they may be harmless, other than in the way they drain your hope and money. At worst they can be fantastically dangerous.
“Miracle cures” have added to the suffering of terminal patients who thought they had nothing to lose. They’ve also damaged people who could otherwise have lived well with cancer. If it claims to cure or change the course of your cancer, and if you want to believe it, look it up on Medline Plus or BBC Health. They are not prejudiced against alternative options. You will get excellent information on whatever you’re considering, with no spin. None of the sites in out Look Here First and HIT lists are trying to make money from your pain, and they can help you avoid remedies which are either just not right for you or outright snake-oils.
Not all alternative remedies are snake-oils. We’ve mentioned some quite reasonable ones above. Chinese herbal medicine is another example where there may be potential for help with symptoms and treatment side-effects. Things like Bach Flower and homeopathic remedies will at least do no harm unless substituted for medical therapies. Ayurvedic remedies show some evidence of being beneficial if used in cooperation with your medical treatment.
Lactoferrin is an example of the health food shop approach to cancer. It is sold claiming to help, and indeed studies have shown that it has effects on cancer cells and the immune system but… the supplements being sold contain cow rather than human lactoferrin, and there is absolutely no evidence that this has any effect on humans. Many such remedies have some basis in reasonable theory, but no evidence of any value in practice.