The battle against cancer is hard-won; the treatments many rely on for effective cancer treatment – chemotherapy, radiotherapy – are not able to discriminate between healthy and diseased cells. This means that cancer treatments can be incredibly hard on the body, just when you’re already going through one of the hardest times of your life.
Cancer treatment is an area of medicine where we know that the side effects of the medication are, at least in the short term, sometimes worse than the effects of the disease itself. With any treatment, there’s a risk versus benefit consideration, and when chemotherapy or radiotherapy gives a cancer sufferer the best chance of cure or remission, the long-term benefits are usually thought to outweigh the shorter-term side effects.
Even with the best intentions, the treatments given to try and reduce or eradicate cancerous cells can cause significant harm to the body; hair loss is often the most visible sign of the damage done but anyone who’s had chemo or radiotherapy will report a range of symptoms. There is enormous variety in types and severity of cancer, and there are now many treatments available; survival rates from cancer are improving all the time[i].
The key now is finding ways to help keep people undergoing cancer treatments as well as possible in every other way, and there’s an important place for natural and alternative medicine in helping people get through chemo or radiotherapy and remain well, physically and mentally.
How do chemotherapy and radiotherapy affect the body?
People who handle chemotherapy agents take special precautions, as they are ‘cytotoxic’ – that is, toxic to cells. Radiation treatment, similarly, in some cases can be aimed at specific cancerous areas in the body, but can also disrupt the normal bodily processes and create their own problems. Chemo drugs can affect lots of parts of the body in lots of different ways. Some of the most common side effects of cancer treatments include:
- Hair loss: hair follicles can be affected by chemotherapy, and hair loss is a common effect. The hair loss associated with chemotherapy can affect every hair follicle in the body, and some people lose their eyelashes, eyebrows, and body hair too. Skin and nails can be affected in the same way. Healthy hair usually starts to grow back shortly after the final treatment.
- Digestive troubles: people undergoing cancer treatments frequently complain of lack of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and altered bowel habits such as diarrhea or constipation.
- Sexual and reproductive dysfunction: the physical onslaught of cancer treatment, the traumatic and mentally taxing diagnosis, the multitude of unpleasant side effects all naturally add up to a loss of libido. Beyond that, treatment can have a direct effect on the reproductive organs, causing vaginal dryness, increasing susceptibility to infections like urinary tract infections or genital thrush (candida), and even affecting fertility – short or long-term, both male and female. Many cancer treatments are also known to cause problems in pregnancy or birth defects, so pregnancy is best avoided at this time.
- Compromised immune system: the cells that help fight infections, and the bone marrow where those cells are made, are often damaged by cancer treatment. This means that people undergoing treatment can be prone to infections, and can find it harder to fight off illnesses.
- Lowered numbers of essential blood cells: anemia, meaning reduced numbers of red blood cells, means intense tiredness, inability to concentrate, shortness of breath, and feeling cold and weak. Chemo can also lower numbers of platelets, meaning that blood doesn’t clot the way it’s meant to, leading to the risk of bruising and bleeding. Bleeding from the stomach or bowel can cause significant problems.
How can natural medicine work alongside cancer treatments?
Some natural treatments can work alongside chemotherapy or radiotherapy to help manage the side effects and keep the body as well as can be. At the Budwig Center in Malaga, Spain, we offer natural therapies to complement medical treatment and make the process as easy as possible. Natural medicine can help those fighting cancer by:
- Managing symptoms of cancer[ii]
- Treating side-effects of chemo or radiotherapy[iii]
- Helping to maintain a healthy immune system, and keeping the body in otherwise good shape[iv]
Some of the most simple changes can make a big difference in the way you feel, and so nutrition is a huge part of what we do. Healthy eating reduces cancer risk long-term, and even in the short-term can make a difference[v]. Getting specialist, expert advice on nutrition and on the use of dietary supplements like vitamins and minerals could help manage and reduce symptoms like nausea, changes in bowel habits, and even lower infection risk.
There is a huge range of therapies available to work alongside cancer treatments, and research is always helping to update our knowledge and practice. Our use of honey for preventing mouth ulcers in patients undergoing chemo or radiotherapy now has overwhelming evidence[vi], and the benefits of therapeutic touch – the reduction of pain or anxiety through massage or simply stroking someone’s hand[vii] – are well known.
Working together with cancer specialists, nutritionists and other members of the therapeutic team means giving the best, holistic treatment. When you have a diagnosis of cancer, it’s easy to feel swept along in decisions about your body and treatment, and we believe that taking an active decision-making role is important[viii], even when some choices are limited.
As some treatments can interact with others, it’s important to tell your primary cancer care physician when you’re taking other medications, even those from natural or herbal sources[ix].
[ii] Chui, P.L., Abdullah, K.L., Wong, L.P. and Taib, N.A., 2018. Complementary and alternative medicine use and symptom burden in women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer in Malaysia. Cancer nursing, 41(3), pp.189-199.
[iii] Coolbrandt, A., Dierckx de Casterlé, B., Wildiers, H., Aertgeerts, B., Van der Elst, E., van Achterberg, T. and Milisen, K., 2016. Dealing with chemotherapy‐related symptoms at home: a qualitative study in adult patients with cancer. European Journal of cancer care, 25(1), pp.79-92.
[iv] Ma, L.X., Ai, P., Li, H. and Vardy, J., 2015. The prophylactic use of Chinese herbal medicine for chemotherapy-induced leucopenia in oncology patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Supportive Care in Cancer, 23(2), pp.561-579.
[v] Zaid, Z.A., Jackson, K., Kandiah, M. and Cobiac, L., 2016. Improving the Nutritional Status of Patients with Colorectal Cancer Undergoing Chemotherapy through Intensive Individualised Diet and Lifestyle Counselling. Malaysian Journal of Nutrition, 22(1).
[vi] Thomsen, M. and Vitetta, L., 2018. Adjunctive treatments for the prevention of chemotherapy-and radiotherapy-induced mucositis. Integrative cancer therapies, 17(4), pp.1027-1047.
[vii] Miladinia, M., Baraz, S., Shariati, A. and Malehi, A.S., 2017. Effects of slow-stroke back massage on symptom cluster in adult patients with acute leukemia: supportive care in cancer nursing. Cancer nursing, 40(1), pp.31-38.
[viii] Legenne, M., Chirac, A., Ruer, M., Reix, F. and Filbet, M., 2015. Perception of naturopathy for female patients with metastatic gynecological cancer: A qualitative study. Palliative & supportive care, 13(6), pp.1663-1668.
[ix] Johnson, S.B., Park, H.S., Gross, C.P. and Yu, J.B., 2017. Use of alternative medicine for cancer and its impact on survival. JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 110(1), pp.121-124.