Getting a diagnosis of cancer is a life-changing event, to say the least. So getting as many answers as quickly as possible is key. A few answers might come from the complementary and alternative therapy schools of thought. As you work through this time with your doctor, remember that there is much you can do for yourself and your body that will provide comfort for you and assistance to your body while dealing with the disease and treatments.
Staying on track with your doctor’s instructions is paramount. However, there are complementary options you may wish to explore further. Learning techniques like meditation and visualization can help you through difficult times. You may wish to engage professional therapists trained in therapies such as reiki, reflexology, massage and acupuncture to assist with pain and to provide the relief needed to make it through the rough patches. Having a network of supportive friends around you can make all the difference when some days just seem to never end.
And certainly, optimal nutrition should be near the top of the list of things to be concerned with. Getting the best nutrition possible will provide your body with the tools, strength and foundation it needs to fight the disease and stay healthy during the treatment process.
What is cancer?
Cancer is a disease that starts in our cells. Our bodies are made up of millions of cells, grouped together to form tissues and organs such as muscles and bones, the lungs and the liver. Genes inside each cell order it to grow, work, reproduce and die. Normally, our cells obey these orders and we remain healthy. But sometimes the instructions get mixed up, causing the cells to form lumps or tumours, or spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system to other parts of the body.
Tumours can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Benign tumour cells stay in one place in the body and are not usually life-threatening.
Malignant tumour cells are able to invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. Cancer cells that spread to other parts of the body are called metastases.
The first sign that a malignant tumour has spread (metastasized) is often swelling of nearby lymph nodes, but cancer can metastasize to almost any part of the body. It is important to find malignant tumours as early as possible.1
Breast cancer starts in the cells of the breast. The breast tissue covers an area larger than just the breast. It extends up to the collarbone and from the armpit across to the breastbone in the centre of the chest. The breasts sit on the chest muscles that cover the ribs. Breast tissue also changes with age. Breast tissue in younger women is mostly made of glands and milk ducts, but older women’s breasts are made up mostly of fatty tissue. 2
The Lymphatic System
Without this quietly working system, our cardiovascular system would stop working and our immune system would be hopelessly impaired.
The lymphatic system actually consists of two semi-independent parts: (1) a meandering network of lymphatic vessels and (2) various lymphoid tissues and organs scattered throughout the body.
The lymphatic vessels transport fluids that have escaped from the blood vascular system back to the blood. The lymphoid organs house phagocytic cells and lymphocytes, which play essential roles in body defense and resistance to disease. 3
Lymph nodes trap bacteria, cancer cells and other harmful substances.
The breasts contain lymph vessels and lymph nodes, which are also part of the lymphatic system. There are groups of lymph nodes near the breast under the arm, near the collarbone and in the chest behind the breastbone.
The Immune System
The body’s defenders against tiny but mighty enemies are two systems, simply called the nonspecific and specific defense systems. The nonspecific defense system responds immediately to all foreign substances, whatever they are.
The specific defense system, more commonly called the immune system, mounts the attack against particular foreign substances. Although certain body organs (lymphatic organs and blood vessels) are intimately involved with the immune response, the immune system is a functional system rather than an organ system in an anatomical sense. Its “structures” are a variety of molecules and trillions of immune cells, which inhabit lymphatic tissues and circulate in body fluids.4
Non-Cancerous Breast Conditions
Benign or non-cancerous breast conditions are very common. In fact, most breast conditions or changes found in the breast and examined under the microscope are benign and these changes can be found in most women. Unlike breast cancers, benign breast conditions are not life threatening. But sometimes these conditions can cause troublesome symptoms.
Finding Benign Breast Conditions – Signs and Symptoms of Breast Changes
Changes in the breasts may be caused either by benign conditions or cancer. Even though the most common symptoms listed below are more likely due to benign conditions, it is important to let your health care team know about any changes you notice. Many symptoms of benign conditions are the same as those seen in breast cancer. It is often not possible to tell the difference between benign and cancerous conditions based on symptoms alone in the beginning. Your doctor can do other tests to tell the difference between the two. Some benign breast conditions may not cause any symptoms and may be found during a mammogram or a breast biopsy.
Lumps: A benign breast condition often causes a lump or area of thickening. It may or may not be tender to the touch. Usually it is found by a woman while checking her breasts or under her arms, or by her doctor or nurse during a breast exam.
The younger a woman is, the more likely it is that a single breast lump is due to a benign condition. In women under 30, the most common cause is a fibroadenoma. In women in their 30s and 40s, benign conditions (fibroadenoma, fibrocystic changes, atypical hyperplasia) are also the most likely causes. Cysts (non-cancerous, fluid-filled sacs) and non-invasive cancers (ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS) are more common in older women. The chance that a single lump is breast cancer is an important possibility in any of these age groups, but it is more likely in older women than in younger ones. Having several lumps in both breasts is most commonly due to a benign condition such as fibrocystic changes. Breast lumps, like other symptoms, have to be viewed along with other symptoms a woman may be having. For example, a new, tender lump accompanied by skin redness and a fever may be a sign of a breast infection. But any new lump or other change should be checked by a doctor or nurse.
Pain: Some women have breast pain or discomfort that is related to the menstrual cycle. This type of “cyclic” pain is most common in the week or so before a menstrual period, and often goes away once menstruation begins. Many women with fibrocystic changes have cyclic breast pain. Changes in hormone levels are thought to be the cause. Some benign breast conditions, such as breast inflammation (mastitis) may cause a more sudden onset of pain at a specific site. In these cases the pain is not related to the menstrual cycle. Rarely, breast cancer lumps can be painful as well.
Fibrocystic changes include a range of changes within the breast involving both the glandular (lobules and ducts) and stromal tissues. In the past, this was called “fibrocystic disease.” Because this condition affects at least half of all women at some point, it is more accurately defined as a “change” rather than a “disease.” Fibrocystic changes are most common in women of childbearing age but can affect women of any age. Fibrocystic changes or FCCs are the most frequent benign disorder of the breast. These changes most frequently affect premenopausal women between the ages of 20 and 50 years of age. They may occur in many breast locations and in both breasts at the same time.5
Complementary Therapies and Breast Cancer
Complementary therapies are used together with conventional treatment of breast cancer and are not directly involved in treating the cancer, but are used to help the patient cope with the treatments and the disease.
There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that herbal remedies can provide relief to cancer patients in certain circumstances. For instance, you may be able to ward off nausea from chemotherapy by sipping ginger tea or eating a piece of crystallized ginger before or after your treatment. To soothe irritation of the esophagus due to chemotherapy, drink a thin gruel made from slippery elm powder. (Weil) Some laboratory studies “have demonstrated inhibitory effects of tea preparations and tea polyphenols against tumor formation and growth.” (Yang) One specific Chinese herbal preparation deserves specific mention. PC SPES consists of reproducible extracts of seven different Chinese herbs and an American herb. This combination has been shown to have the ability to suppress tumor cell proliferation and to reduce the clonogenicity [the ability of a cell to form clones] of a variety of human tumor cell lines, inducing apoptosis [programmed cell death](Halicka). (Spencer) 6
However, some herbal preparations contain hormones, which could exacerbate specific types of cancer. It is always advisable, and the best practice, to discuss with your attending physicians and specialists consulting on your case any and all types of herbal remedies you might consider using during your treatments. Be clear in your mind why you want to try these herbal remedies.
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants to support and balance the mind, body, and spirit. Patients with cancer use aromatherapy mainly to improve their quality of life. Essential oils like Roman chamomile, geranium, lavender, and cedarwood are the basic materials of aromatherapy.
Essential oils are most often used by inhaling them or by applying them to the skin. However, some essential oils like geranium, should not be applied directly to the skin if the skin is sensitive to allergic reactions. Aromatherapy may work by sending chemical messages to the part of the brain that affects moods and emotions. Laboratory studies and animal studies have shown that certain essential oils may also have antibacterial, calming, or energizing effects.
Some patients receiving aromatherapy have reported improvement in symptoms such as nausea or pain, and have lower blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rates.
Aromatherapy research with cancer patients has studied its effects on symptoms, anxiety and stress. Studies of massage with or without aromatherapy in cancer patients found that they had less anxiety and more restful sleep, although there is mixed evidence about whether aromatherapy itself adds to the benefits of massage therapy.
Safety testing on essential oils has found very few bad side effects. However, lavender and tea tree oils have been found to have some hormone -like effects.7
The role of acupuncture is in its adjunctive use in anesthesia, in post-operative pain control, and in aiding and hastening recovery from the side effects of the various therapies. Acupuncture is effective for control of pain, of local swelling post-operatively, for shortening the resolution of hematoma [bruising or blood clot] and tissue swelling and for minimizing use of medications and their attendant side effects. Energetic acupuncture, an approach consisting of the use of needles with electricity and moxibustion (a form of local heating with herbs) imparts a sense of well being and accelerates patients’ recovery. In conjunction with nutritional support, its use is routinely employed in some cancer institutions.8
The diet is an important part of cancer treatment. Eating the right kinds of foods before, during, and after treatment can help the patient feel better and stay stronger. To ensure proper nutrition, a person has to eat and drink enough of the foods that contain key nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water). Eating too little protein and calories is the most common nutrition problem facing many cancer patients. Protein and calories are important for healing, fighting infection, and providing energy.
Nutrition therapy can help cancer patients get the nutrients needed to maintain body weight and strength, prevent body tissue from breaking down, rebuild tissue, and fight infection. Eating guidelines for cancer patients can be very different from the usual suggestions for healthful eating. Nutrition recommendations for cancer patients are designed to help the patient cope with the effects of the cancer and its treatment. Some cancer treatments are more effective if the patient is well nourished and getting enough calories and protein in the diet. People who eat well during cancer treatment may even be able to handle higher doses of certain treatments. Being well-nourished has been linked to a better prognosis (chance of recovery).9
There are individual (anecdotal) reports that Reiki increases relaxation and sense of well being. There is early scientific evidence that Reiki may be useful for reducing pain in some patients with advanced cancer. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Reiki can treat cancer.
Reiki is a therapy that the practitioner delivers through the hands, with intent to raise the amount of universal life energy (qi or ch’i) in and around the client. Proponents claim when the energy paths of the body are blocked or disturbed; the result can be illness, weakness, and pain. Practitioners intend to realign and strengthen the flow of energy, decrease pain, ease muscle tension, speed the healing, improve sleep, and generally enhance the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Many practitioners explain that Reiki is not used to diagnose or treat specific illnesses. Rather, Reiki is said to promote relaxation, decrease stress and anxiety, and increase a person’s general sense of well being.
There are many individual reports about Reiki’s power to increase well being and refresh the spirit. Some cancer patients undergoing active treatment have reported increased well being, reduced pain, and reduced nausea and vomiting after Reiki sessions. One small controlled pilot study found that Reiki was linked with reduced self-report of pain in patients with advanced cancer, but had no effect on the amount of pain medicine used by the patients to control their pain. 10
Reflexology and/or Massage
Reflexology is a treatment that uses pressure on specific areas of the feet (or the hands) with the goal of relieving a variety of problems and balancing the flow of vital energy throughout the body.
There is early scientific evidence that reflexology may be useful for relaxation and reducing some types of pain and anxiety in some patients.Available scientific evidence does not support reflexology as a treatment for cancer or any other disease.
Reflexology is based on the theory that reflex points, located in the feet or hands are linked to various parts of the body and organs. According to this theory, stimulation of these points is thought to affect the connected organ or body part. By stimulating these reflex points, reflexologists claim that they can relieve a wide variety of health problems and promote well being and relaxation.
Some proponents claim that reflexology can help conditions such as respiratory infections, headaches, asthma, diabetes, back pain, premenstrual distress, and problems with the skin and gastrointestinal tract. They also say reflexology can stimulate internal organs, boost circulation, and restore bodily functions to normal. They believe that energy travels from the foot to the spine, where it is released to the rest of the body. They believe that reflexology releases endorphins (the body’s own natural pain killers) and detoxifies the body by dissolving uric acid crystals in the feet. Some reflexologists say that a tender or gritty area of the foot or hand reflects a current or past disease in the organ linked to that area.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that reflexology cures cancer or any other disease. However, it has been shown to help promote relaxation and reduce pain in some people. Most evidence regarding reflexology is based on individual reports (anecdotal) or small studies.
A 2003 study looked at patients with cancer pain and found that reflexology seemed to help symptoms for a short time. In a Danish study in the early 1990s, 220 people suffering from migraines or tension headaches were evaluated. Eighty one percent of the participants said they were helped or cured by reflexology. Nineteen percent of those who had been taking medication were able to stop after 6 months of reflexology treatments. 11
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Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
The suggestions by Nutter’s Bulk & Natural Foods and the contents of this article
are recommendations only and not a substitute for any medical advice or a
replacement for any prescriptions. Seek medical advice for any health concerns.
Consult your health care provider before using any recommendations herein.
1. Canadian Cancer Society
2. Canadian Cancer Society
3. Essentials of Human Anatomy & physiology – Seventh Edition, Elaine N. Marieb
4. Essentials of Human Anatomy & physiology – Seventh Edition, Elaine N. Marieb
5. American Cancer Society
6. B.C. Cancer Agency
7. National Cancer Institute – U.S. National Institutes of Health
8. American Academy of Medical Acupuncture
9. National Cancer Institute – U.S. National Institutes of Health
10. American Cancer Society
11. American Cancer Society