Integrative Medicine for Chemotherapy Side Effects

Understandably, you may be nervous about the potential side effects of your chemotherapy treatment. You realize that the anticancer drugs your doctor is recommending will help treat your cancer, but you want to be proactive in managing the side effects.

Integrative medicine, as defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), “Combines mainstream medical therapies and complementary or alternative therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.” Examples of integrative approaches (also called complementary therapies or complementary and alternative medicine) that can help you manage chemotherapy side effects, along with conventional cancer treatments, include herbal medicine, massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, and mind-body and relaxation techniques, among others.

In addition to helping you manage chemotherapy side effects, integrative therapies can help you cope with the rigors of treatment by reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation. Most importantly, using integrative medicine for chemotherapy side effects empowers you to be an active participant in your own cancer care and treatment.

Integrative medicine for chemotherapy is most effective when used in conjunction with allopathic treatments as part of a complete holistic treatment plan that focuses on the whole person to promote health and healing. These complementary therapies should not be used as a substitution for conventional therapies recommended by an allopathic physician.

Herbal Medicine for Chemotherapy Side Effects

In addition to proper nutrition and taking anti-nausea medications as prescribed, some herbal remedies can help relieve certain chemotherapy side effects and protect your body from the toxic effects of anticancer drugs. It's important to let your doctor know what herbal remedies you are considering for the management of chemotherapy side effects so you can avoid potential interactions with your current medications or other treatments.

Ginger, taken in capsule or tincture form (liquid made from steeping the herb in alcohol and water), has been used to relieve chemotherapy-related nausea.

Blackberry, raspberry, and peppermint tea have been helpful in reducing chemotherapy-related diarrhea.

Ligustrum, taken as a tincture or tea, as well as medicinal mushrooms (reishi and shiitake, taken in tablet or tincture form), are used during chemotherapy to strengthen the immune system, which is often weakened as the result of anticancer drugs.

Milk thistle is believed to have protective effects on the liver during chemotherapy treatments. It is taken in the form of a capsule, extract, or tea.

Siberian ginseng can be used during chemotherapy to treat hormonal imbalances. It is taken in the form of a capsule, extract, or tea.

Certain antioxidant supplements, including grape seed extract, beta-carotene, lutein, vitamin A, lycopene, vitamin C, selenium, vitamin E, zinc, and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), may have harmful effects when taken with certain chemotherapy drugs and should only be taken after first talking with your doctor.

Massage for Chemotherapy Side Effects

Therapeutic massage can be effective in reducing chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting for some patients. Massage can also be used to manage cancer treatment pain as well as reduce tension, anxiety, and stress. Because chemotherapy can increase a patient’s risk of infection, anemia, skin irritation and/or bruising, the massage therapist should modify the massage technique by avoiding areas that are visibly bruised, red, or inflamed. The massage therapist also should take special precautions to reduce the risk of infection while performing massage.

Reflexology can help relieve certain symptoms associated with chemotherapy including nausea, pain, and constipation. Reflexology is a massage technique in which pressure is applied to specific areas on the foot. Reflexology practitioners believe the condition of the feet mirrors the health of the entire body, and that certain reflex areas in the feet correspond to all glands, organs, and parts of the body.

Aromatherapy for Chemotherapy Side Effects

Aromatherapy can be used to improve mood and manage stress that occurs as a result of chemotherapy treatment. Some essential oils for managing chemotherapy side effects include chamomile, lavender, peppermint, rosemary, sandalwood, and tea tree. Aromatherapy is largely based on personal preferences, so while certain scents may improve one person’s mood, they can induce nausea in someone else. Therefore, use aromatherapy with caution and start with mild scents, particularly if you are experiencing nausea as the result of your chemotherapy regimen.

Acupuncture for Chemotherapy Side Effects

Acupuncture can be used to relieve nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. It is believed to work by releasing endorphins, neurotransmitters produced in the brain that reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being. An assessment of 11 trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health showed that acupuncture was a “promising” treatment for reducing chemotherapy-related nausea. In one study of women with breast cancer who had chemotherapy-related nausea (and were taking anti-nausea medication), acupuncture resulted in fewer episodes of nausea, compared with women who received the anti-nausea medication alone.

Mind-Body and Relaxation Techniques for Chemotherapy Side Effects

Mind-body and relaxation techniques, including touch therapies, guided imagery, yoga, tai chi, meditation, relaxation exercises, prayer, and music therapy are integrative therapies that can be used during chemotherapy to promote relaxation, manage stress, and relieve tension.

Touch therapies, including healing and therapeutic touch and Reiki, are methods that can be used to promote relaxation and reduce stress. The practitioner's hands are placed on the client to direct healing energy from the practitioner to the patient.

Guided imagery can be used to relieve chemotherapy side effects including nausea and vomiting. A therapist can instruct the patient on different images to visualize according to the patient’s condition. Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that can help patients manage stress and learn to cope with their condition and its side effects.

Hypnotherapy is psychotherapy that emphasizes hypnosis. It might also involve techniques similar to guided imagery, but a licensed hypnotherapist delivers the therapy to induce deep relaxation.

Yoga uses a combination of deep breathing exercises, meditation, and gentle stretching postures to induce relaxation and relieve stress. Deep breathing and gentle stretching relieve tension in the body and improve flexibility, while meditation allows the mind to let go of worries and stress that often accompany serious illnesses.

Tai chi uses movement, meditation, and breathing to improve health and well being. It is an ancient type of Chinese martial art. Tai chi improves energy flow within the body.

Meditation and relaxation exercises involve a specific mental focus and can be used to manage stress and promote relaxation. Some relaxation techniques involve deep breathing exercises. Landscape therapy is one type of relaxation exercise in which peaceful, relaxing landscapes are shown to patients via artwork or a slideshow to induce a sense of calm, peace, and relaxation.

Prayer is one of the oldest relaxation exercises involving a specific mental focus. Prayer and other spiritual practices can help a person achieve a mind-body balance to manage stress and relieve anxiety associated with chemotherapy treatment.

Music has the ability to induce a peaceful, relaxed state of mind and can be used during chemotherapy to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Music therapy may include listening to the music as well as playing it. Music therapists are educated in designing individual music programs for patients with specific disorders.

Art therapy, according to the American Art Therapy Association, uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals. Art therapy can relieve stress by helping you express your feelings about your cancer and its treatment.

Talk to Your Doctor about Integrative Medicine

It’s important to talk to your doctor about the integrative therapies you are considering for the management of chemotherapy side effects. Your doctor can recommend the best combination of integrative therapies that will work to complement your chemotherapy regimen and overall cancer treatment program. Your integrative medicine practitioner can provide guidance about the appropriate treatment or combination of treatments that are right for you to manage chemotherapy side effects.

Additional Resources

Thinking about Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People with Cancer, April 2005, National Cancer Institute.

American Cancer Society

Cancer Answers

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

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