Integrative Medicine could be a game-changer for actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who recently announced that she is now among 1 in 8 women with breast cancer. In fact, integrative medicine should be a consideration for anyone with a cancer diagnosis.
While Julia has not yet publically disclosed her planned course of treatment, there’s a 50/50 chance that the side-effects from her cancer treatments could be severe, and significantly impact her quality of life.
Side-effects can include nausea, vomiting, pain, shortness of breath, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, breast-skin irritation, depression, and much more. Not only do people feel bad physically, cancer treatments negatively interfere with all other aspects of life.
If Julia is interested in keeping herself as strong and healthy as possible, she may opt to use integrative medicine. If she does, she’ll join the likes of 30 percent to 50 percent of people with cancer who include it in their care. Once referred to as “alternative medicine,” integrative medicine is defined as “a healing-oriented medicine that takes account the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, and is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.”
One type of integrative medicine used by breast cancer patients is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is a broad range of ancient Chinese medicine practices (ie. acupuncture, tuina, qigong, herbs, etc.) dating back more than 2000 years used to diagnose and treat countless conditions. One of the main principles of TCM is that the mind and body are completely interconnected, and when both energetically are in a state of balance, we experience health. Alternatively, when energy or qi (“chee”) begin to become impaired, by things like stress, unhealthy habits, or environmental factors, qi can become weak, stagnant, or too strong, which can cause illness and pain. One way TCM practitioners help patients regain an improved state of physical health and emotional well-being is through the use of acupuncture.
The treatment involves the gentle placement of tiny sterile hair-thin needles into various parts on the body.
While there are over 2,000 acupuncture points that a TCM practitioner can select from, treatments usually consist of a handful of carefully selected points. Each treatment is meticulously tailored to address the unique needs of each and every person.
As a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine who’s spent the last decade providing care for cancer patients at a major academic medical center, I know one thing for sure: Integrative medicine can be a game-changer. While I’m not an expert in all areas of integrative medicine, I am an expert in TCM, and acupuncture has helped my patients better manage distressing symptoms such as pain, nausea, hot flashes, sleep disturbances, and anxiety. In my experience, when cancer patients feel better, their spirit is stronger, and this alone makes a world of difference in their lives.
While breast cancer patients are among the most open-minded about integrative medicine, most avoid talking with their doctors about a game-plan and instead seek advice from friends, family, or the internet. This is not the safest idea.
Anyone interested in exploring these therapies for themselves should do so, but seeking the guidance of an expert is crucial.
Start this process by having open discussions with your healthcare team. While not all oncology providers are going to be knowledgeable about integrative medicine, just ask, they might surprise you. If you happen to receive your cancer care at an academic medical center located in a large urban city, there’s a good chance that an integrative medicine center is available to you.
Interested in integrative medicine? Here are some tips to help you establish a plan, and become more involved in your own care:
1. Talk to your healthcare team: Let your doctors and nurses know that you are interested in integrative medicine as an adjunct to your cancer treatment, and explain why. Ask for their support and any advice they may have. Let them know you’re going to do your homework and will consult with them before proceeding.
2. Do your homework: If you’re starting from scratch and don’t know what type of IM may be best for you, start by checking out The Society of Integrative Oncology new guidelines. These guidelines grade the effectiveness of various integrative medicine therapies for use both during and after breast cancer treatment.
3. Locate a licensed provider: While licensing and credentialing of integrative medicine providers vary from state to state, it’s imperative to be seen by a provider with the appropriate background and expertise. To find the best person for you, explore integrative medicine centers, or find individual licensed providers. Once you find someone of particular interest, ask to have a conversation. At a minimum, ask about their training, education, and experience working with cancer patients. Additionally, ask other questions you deem necessary (e.g., the possible number of treatments, what to expect during visits, cost, insurance coverage, etc).
4. Share Your Plan: Once you have a plan, share it with your providers. Get their input, make any necessary adjustments and proceed.
5. Keep the conversation going: At each doctor visit, take time to discuss your experience with integrative medicine, and ensure your team that you will continue to keep them in the loop with your progress.
Certainly, integrative medicine is not the answer for everything, nor is it for everyone. And, most certainly, it should not be used as an ‘alternative‘ to cancer care. But, for people who are looking for effective ways to stay as strong and hopeful during the fight of their lives – integrative medicine may just be the silver lining they need.
Angela Johnson, MSTOM, MPH, is an Assistant Professor at Rush University and Practitioner of Chinese medicine with the Cancer Integrative Medicine at Rush University Medical Center. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.