Pancreatic Cancer

Complementary therapies, diet and other lifestyle changes

Complementary therapies
Many of the people we interviewed used complementary approaches, such as massage, relaxation and dietary changes, alongside conventional treatment. Complementary approaches to dealing with cancer have been less thoroughly tested than conventional medicines. 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 make people feel better. Some may also help to reduce particular side effects. Relaxation techniques are now often part of conventional support for many patients and are increasingly being offered free at cancer treatment and support centres and at hospices, as part of a psychological approach to learning how to manage the stress of cancer. Sometimes people are invited to leave a donation; others pay for complementary therapies from private practitioners (also see ‘Other sources of support’).
A few people we interviewed said they would not consider using complementary therapies for their cancer: they trusted their doctors and only believed in treatments that had been tested scientifically. They felt cynical about expensive, unproven treatments offered on the internet or suggested by well-meaning friends or relatives. Others hadn’t considered complementary approaches.
Others were more open-minded about trying complementary therapies and found some had helped. Donna, for example, who had decided to have only palliative care, loved the reflexology she had in a hospice. Reflexology is a kind of foot or hand massage derived from Chinese acupressure. Pressure is applied to the feet and hands with specific thumb, finger and hand techniques; such work is supposed to effect a physical change in the body. It does not involve oils.
Others found Reiki helpful. This is a Japanese system of ‘natural healing’. During Reiki the practitioner’s hands are gently placed in a sequence of positions over the whole body. No clothing is removed. Through the use of this technique, practitioners believe that they are transferring healing energy through the palms; some believe that healing can also take place at a distance. Michael said that having reiki before surgery made him confident that he would survive the operation, and during adjuvant treatment it helped him to cope with side effects.
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art practised for both its defence training and its health benefits. John (Interview 40) found this type of body movement very relaxing.
Massage helped some people. William, for example, found that head massage helped to reduce his stress. He also had a body massage. Davinder found that gentle massage, a hot bath and balm ointment were sometimes just as good as painkillers.
Because some complementary therapies may be inappropriate 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, certain types of massage may be dangerous for patients with cancer. Some people worry that a massage may make the cancer cells travel to other parts of the body. No research has proved that this happens. However, there are reasons why it is important for people with cancer to consult their doctors before undergoing a deep massage, to see if it is advisable. Rory was on the TeloVac trial, which included vaccine injections and chemotherapy. She had regular foot massage, which she loved, but she felt very ill after having a full body massage.
Simon’s wife, Karen, discovered she had cancer in 2007. Before she died in 2009 she tried many complementary therapies, including Carctol (a mixture of eight Indian herbs), spiritual healing and the Bowen Technique. In a Bowen Technique session, the patient, wearing loosely fitting clothes, lies on a bed and relaxes. The therapist applies gentle rolling or flicking movements along the spine and at specific points on the body. These movements consist of a subtle rolling of muscle, nerve, tendon and connective tissue. The therapist leaves the room between each pattern in the series to give the patient time to relax and reflect.
Some people used visualisation to cope with pain. By conjuring up positive pictures, visualisation can change emotions that later have a positive effect on mind or body. Peter (Interview 36) practised visualisation when he was suffering the effects of chemotherapy. He visualised pleasurable situations, such as being with his son on the Thames (see 'Side effects of chemotherapy').
Maureen also stressed the importance of treating mind, body and spirit at the same time. She imagined that she was throwing her cancer cells out of the window when she got up in the morning, and she told her body that her medicines were there to help her.
Richard (Interview 22) wanted to give up smoking, saw a hypnotherapist, and succeeded. The hypnotherapist suggested that Richard should also use hypnotherapy to heal himself and taught him how to hypnotise himself. Richard believed in conventional medical treatment but also that his mental attitude towards his illness mattered.
David’s (Interview 30) wife, Fiona, also had a couple of sessions of hypnotherapy to put her mind ‘in the right orientation’ but David said she didn’t find it ‘hugely helpful’.
Some people question the idea that positive thinking is important for the healing process. Ann, for example, said that this notion wasn’t right for her. She wondered how she would feel if she ‘wished her cancer away’ yet remained ill.
Dietary and other lifestyle changes
Many people we interviewed had changed their diet because the cancer (or the treatment) had affected their digestion (see ‘Long term effects of the cancer and its treatment’). Others changed their diet because they thought a different diet might help to cure their cancer. Some reduced their consumption of meat, dairy products, smoked foods or alcohol (also see ‘Everyday life and facing the future’). Others cut out some acidic foods or ate more alkaline foods. Although research shows that eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, 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.
Theadora’s mother adapted her diet based on ideas from a book by Michael Gerson and the dietary approach advocated by what was then called The Bristol Cancer Help Centre, now renamed the Penny Brohn Cancer Care. This charity offers complementary therapies, advice & counselling for people living with cancer and their supporters.
Some people took extra vitamins or minerals or other ‘health products’. For example, Maureen took flax oil and Simon’s wife, Karen, took a mixture of eight Indian herbs called Carctol. Although some doctors in the UK use and prescribe Carctol for people with cancer, Carctol isn’t a licensed medicine in the UK because there isn’t enough evidence to prove that it is safe or works as a treatment for any type of illness.
As the word 'complementary' suggests, health professionals recommend that these approaches should be considered an addition to and not a substitute for conventional medical treatment. However, sometimes people choose to use therapies or dietary supplements as an alternative to conventional treatment. This may happen when people are told that there is no more 'active' conventional treatment, or when they feel that they've had enough of the side effects of conventional treatment. One of the men we interviewed decided not to continue with chemotherapy after seven cycles and took dried apricot seeds (kernels) instead. He reasoned that at this stage he had 'nothing to lose'. He went on to take an extract of apricot seeds in pill form instead called ‘vitamin B17’, which is not a true vitamin and its sale has since been banned in the USA and Europe. In spite of a warning from his doctor that these products contain cyanide and were therefore poisonous, he was convinced that they were doing him some good. There is currently no evidence to show that apricot seeds or ‘vitamin’ B17 work but randomised controlled trials have not been carried out.

Some people said that well-meaning friends or relatives had suggested special diets or certain supplements but they had not followed their recommendations. Since his cancer diagnosis Tony has cut down the number of cigarettes he smoked from 20 to 3 or 4 a day.  

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Last reviewed September 2018.


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