Complementary approaches and lifestyle changes

Complementary therapies
Cancer treatment or support centres are increasingly offering complementary therapies such as reflexology and aromatherapy. Meditation and relaxation techniques may also be offered to help people learn how to manage the stress of cancer. Such therapies are now often seen as part of conventional support for many patients. Some people paid for complementary therapy sessions from private practitioners, others accessed them via friends or family.
Most complementary approaches to dealing with cancer have been less thoroughly tested than conventional medicines so their effects are not proven in the same way. They have no proven effect on cancer growth, but they seem to help many people to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and promote a sense of well-being. There is growing evidence that they may also reduce some side effects of cancer treatment. For instance, acupuncture can be used to treat nausea resulting from chemotherapy and can also relieve some types of pain.
Many people had used complementary therapies, such as reflexology (a kind of foot or hand massage derived from Chinese acupressure) and reiki (a Japanese system of natural healing), to help them relax and to cope with the effects of the illness and its treatment. Some people had been prepared to try anything that might help while doing no harm. Others believed that the complementary approaches they had used had helped to reduce their symptoms.
As the word 'complementary' suggests, these approaches should be considered an addition to, and not a substitute for, conventional medical treatment. One woman believed that alternatives to conventional medicine had the potential to cure disease but that it was extremely difficult to achieve such a holistic approach within the constraints of a western lifestyle. She therefore recommends supporting the body with complementary approaches while having conventional medicine. She wishes that more research would be done into alternative therapies and hopes one day to travel to the Far East to explore alternative ways of curing her chronic myeloid leukaemia.
Because some complementary therapies may be unsuitable for people with particular types of cancer or having a particular treatment, people with cancer should discuss complementary therapies with their hospital specialist before having them. For instance, research has shown that it is safe for people with cancer to have massage but it should avoid the parts of the body affected by the cancer. Some professionals recommend superficial but not deep massage. Some people suffering from aches and pains said massage helped to soothe them.
Health professionals vary in their attitudes to different complementary therapies. Some doctors are particularly cautious about patients using herbal medicines because they are unsure of their effects and possible interactions with other medicines. Some people had been advised by their doctors not to use complementary therapies during chemotherapy.
Patients’ attitudes to different complementary therapies also vary; for instance some people we spoke to were happy to use relaxation techniques as part of a psychological approach to coping with their leukaemia but would not consider taking herbal medicines. Some people used complementary therapies to treat other health conditions but not their leukaemia. Others said they didn't believe in complementary therapies or that they didn't appeal to them.
Diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes
Many people wanted to support their general health by eating as healthily as possible and adapted their diet to include more fresh fruit and vegetables and less red meat, processed foods, caffeine or alcohol. Marie had started eating fish three times a week even though she didn't like it. One woman went vegetarian for 2-3 years and ate only fresh or freshly cooked food on the advice of an ayurvedic doctor. Some people had been advised to increase their iron intake to avoid anaemia. Elsa ate red meat for this purpose during episodes of illness but cut it out when in remission. Two people cut out sweet foods after they developed diabetes as a complication of their leukaemia treatment.
Some people asked their doctors what dietary changes they should make and were often frustrated by being told just to eat healthily. Some sought information elsewhere and as a result decided to cut out certain foods or take dietary supplements. Research shows that eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer (not leukaemia). But so far no scientific evidence indicates that following any particular diet, or cutting out key elements of a normal diet, as some therapists advise, can treat cancer or prevent it coming back.
On the advice of an ayurvedic doctor one woman drank wheatgrass juice for a while but said it tasted horrid. A friend of Jimmy’s had recommended a herbal tea made from roots, bark and leaves. Several people had introduced green tea into their diet either as daily capsules or a drink. Some people took echinacea to boost their immune system. Other common supplements included vitamins, iron tablets, fish oils, ginkgo, magnesium and glucosamine. One woman took a supplement called inositol hexaphosphate (IP6), which occurs naturally in certain foods and is being researched as a potential anti-cancer agent. Some also tried homeopathic remedies; Jane was given one as a gift but said it had no effect on her.
Some changed their diet either to restore weight lost during leukaemia treatment or to lose weight that they had put in through inactivity as a result of post-treatment fatigue. Some had increased their amount of exercise, both to help their recovery from treatment (see ‘Remission and recovery from treatment’) and to be as healthy as possible. Most recommended relatively gentle exercise at first, such as gardening, walking, cycling or Tai chi. Janet said she wanted to swim but had been advised to avoid public swimming pools because of the risk of infection.
A few people stopped smoking after leukaemia was diagnosed. John says he also tries to avoid certain chemicals, such as insecticides, and stopped working very long hours.

Others said they had not changed their lifestyle because of the leukaemia.

*CML – Chronic myeloid leukaemia
  CLL – Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia

Last reviewed: December 2018.
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