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Complementary Alternative Cancer Therapies

Natural Strategies for Alleviating Cancer Symptoms

A range of complementary strategies are known to improve symptoms experienced by cancer patients.

Anxiety, Depression, and Stress. The use of aromatherapy and massage is effective in alleviating depression, anxiety, and stress in cancer patients and has a positive effect on quality of life (Cassileth BR et al 2004; Soden K et al 2004). Undergoing 30-minute massage sessions three times a week for five weeks reduces hostility and anger in cancer patients (Hernandez-Reif M et al 2004). In addition to massage, progressive muscle relaxation alleviates depression and anxiety in cancer patients (Hernandez-Reif M et al 2005).

The use of acupuncture, hypnosis, and exercise reduces stress and anxiety (Samuels N 2002; Stalpers LJ et al 2005; Thorsen L et al 2005).

Laughter and humor are also known to improve mood and combat depression in cancer patients (Bennett MP et al 2003; Christie W et al 2005; Takahashi K et al 2001). This improvement in mood is accompanied by quantifiable improvements in immune system and hormonal factors that influence overall well-being (Berk LS et al 2001; Christie W et al 2005; Takahashi K et al 2001).

Emotional support from a spouse reduces depression and improves quality of life in cancer patients (Ohara-Hirano Y et al 2004). Dietary supplementation with the amino acid L-carnitine in cancer patients has been effective in treating depression (Cruciani RA et al 2004).

Nausea and Vomiting. Acupuncture and finger acupressure are effective in overcoming treatment-induced nausea and vomiting (Collins KB et al 2004; Klein J et al 2004; Shin YH et al 2004). Electro-acupoint stimulation and hypnotherapy also reduce the frequency and intensity of nausea in cancer patients (Gan TJ et al 2004; Deng G et al 2004).

Poor Appetite or Cachexia. Advanced cancer is often accompanied by a condition of muscle wasting referred to as cachexia or catabolic wasting (Barber MD 2001; Brown TT et al 2003). Metabolic imbalances caused by the disease, which include the over-production of inflammatory factors, lead to the loss of appetite and the excessive breakdown of fat and muscle (Barber MD et al 2001). This wasting condition is associated with diminished quality of life and shorter survival (Barber MD 2001; Brown TT et al 2003).

Dietary supplementation with fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids) counteracts the inflammatory factors and reverses the weight loss associated with cachexia (Barber MD 2001; Brown TT et al 2003; Fearon KC et al 2003). Stabilization of this condition with fish oil supplements also leads to enhanced quality of life (Bruera E et al 2003; Burns CP et al 2004; Fearon KC et al 2003). For more information, refer to the chapter on Catabolic Wasting.

Lymphedema. Lymphedema, a condition characterized by excessive swelling and retention of water under the skin, often afflicts cancer patients, particularly after radiation therapy and surgery (Ashikaga T et al 2002; McNeely ML et al 2004).

Natural strategies known to be somewhat helpful in alleviating this condition include compression bandaging, which reduces the size of the swollen area, and manual massage of the draining lymph nodes, which may alleviate mild cases of lymphedema (McNeely ML et al 2004; Mortimer PS 1997). The use of selenium may improve the benefits of physical therapies such as massage and compression (Bruns F et al 2003).

Sexual Dysfunction. Cancer patients, in particular those with prostate cancer, often experience sexual dysfunction, or impotency, usually as a complication of their treatment (Burnett AL 2005; Jayne DG et al 2005; Turner SL et al 1999). Sexual dysfunction is also associated with surgery for bladder and colorectal cancer, and with chemotherapy agents that damage the ovaries (Jayne DG et al 2005; Molina JR et al 2005).

Sexual dysfunction in prostate cancer patients can be successfully managed by the use of Viagra® (Incrocci L et al 2003a; Incrocci L et al 2003b). However, some alternative therapies are also effective in managing sexual dysfunction.

Clinical studies have shown that oral supplements of L-glutamine and yohimbine, a plant extract, can improve erectile dysfunction (Lebret T et al 2002). Another dietary supplement  which contains a combination of ginseng, ginkgo, L-arginine, multivitamins, and minerals, improves erectile dysfunction (Ito T et al 1998, 2001). A nutritional supplement  containing barley grass, wheat grass, kelp, chlorella, cooked brown rice, and fructooligosacharrides has also been shown to improve sexual dysfunction (Lau BH et al 2003).

Hair Loss. A mushroom extract, originally concocted for use as an immune system booster, improves alopecia (hair loss), a condition associated with the use of conventional cancer treatments (Ahn WS et al 2004). Animal studies have also shown that supplementing with the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine can also protect against hair loss during conventional cancer treatments (D'Agostini F et al 1998).

Fatigue. In addition to relieving stress, dietary supplementation with the amino acid L-carnitine reduces fatigue, which can be a symptom of the cancer or a side effect of conventional treatment (Cruciani RA et al 2004). The use of L-carnitine during chemotherapy with doxorubicin has been proposed as an adjuvant therapy since 1985 (de Leonardis V et al 1985).

Acupuncture has also demonstrated effectiveness in alleviating cancer fatigue (Cohen AJ et al 2005). Cancer-related fatigue responds to a combined regimen of massage, foot soaking, and reflexology (Kohara H et al 2004). In addition, breathing exercises, conducted with the help of a healthcare provider, improves fatigue in patients recovering from stem cell transplantation (Kim SD et al 2005).