The search for new and better cancer treatments has resulted in some incredible discoveries in recent years. Immunotherapy, a kind of cancer therapy that harnesses the immune system to fight cancer, has monumentally changed the way that some cancers are treated. Chemotherapy and radiation have greatly improved. And researchers are working on bringing more treatment options to patients every single day.
However, despite the many advances in cancer therapy, not all patients respond to these new treatments. Cancer treatments also often lead to side effects that may last for months to years after cancer treatment. Given this, many cancer patients turn to alternative or complementary therapies as potential cancer treatments or as ways to alleviate side effects of cancer treatment.
In this podcast, we explore the evidence behind the use of alternative therapies in patients with cancer with Jennifer Ligibel, MD, director of the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. We also talk about the power of integrative therapies, which cancer patients can use enhance their quality of life during and after cancer treatment.
MEGAN RIESZ: So, are there any alternative treatments that have been proven to treat cancer?
JENNIFER LIGIBEL, MD: So, when we think about “alternative treatments,” that name really applies [when] we’re using these treatments instead of our conventional therapies, like chemotherapy or surgery or radiation. There’s not a lot of evidence that things that are outside those realms actually treat cancer, but there’s a lot of evidence that supportive things, like acupuncture and massage, can help treat the side effects of cancer.
MEGAN: And how do these integrative therapies differ from alternative medicine?
LIGIBEL: Well, in integrative therapy, we really think of it as part of the whole treatment plan. We’re thinking about how we holistically treat a patient, not just to take care of their disease but also to take care of the patient, to make them stronger, to help them get through therapy, to help them recover faster.
MEGAN: And can we just talk about what we define as integrative therapies here?
LIGIBEL: That’s a really good question, and actually, there’s not a textbook answer to what an integrative therapy is. In general, again, these are therapies that focus on the whole person. They can incorporate different modalities. They can be things that you consume as food. They can be things that you engage in, like exercise. They can be something that a provider would deliver to you, like acupuncture. There are some lists that are so expansive they include any kind of exercise. They include prayer.
We, generally, here think of a little bit more concrete list of things, like acupuncture, massage, music and art therapy, mindfulness, meditation, different types of mindful eating, different types of exercise. But there’s really, I think, an expansive list, and it really goes along with the fact that, for these types of supportive therapies, one size doesn’t fit all, and what one particular patient might need might be different than what another does.
MEGAN: So, how can integrative therapies be included in cancer treatment?
LIGIBEL: There has been a lot of research done, actually, over the last decade, especially looking at how these types of therapies can be incorporated into the care of cancer patients, really, again, to focus on mitigating symptoms.
Some of the integrative modalities that have been best studied are acupuncture and yoga, and there are actually randomized trials that show that people who have acupuncture during their chemotherapy treatment have less nausea. There are studies that show that patients who have acupuncture after their treatment when they have prolonged symptoms and side effects—things like neuropathy, fatigue; problems that don’t go away when the treatment stops—that acupuncture can really help alleviate that.
MEGAN: Again, you spoke a little bit about this, but how can integrative therapies help patients manage pain or other side effects from cancer treatment, generally?
LIGIBEL: I think that, at this point, we have a lot of evidence about what types of therapies might be helpful. We know a little bit less about how those therapies help. We know, for example, that yoga is very helpful for fatigue, and there’s some research that’s been done that shows that yoga reduces inflammation, which is something that we think contributes to fatigue. We know that acupuncture reduces pain, and there’s been some really interesting evidence from mouse [models] and other things that show how acupuncture changes pain sensation. But I think that there’s a lot that we still need to learn.
So, we have studies that show that there are benefits, but understanding the mechanisms—the real why—is something that we still really need to learn over the next years.
MEGAN: And where can patients find helpful information on integrative therapies?
LIGIBEL: So, we do have a lot of information on our website, through the Dana-Farber overall website, our Zakim Center page. There are also parts of NIH that focus on complementary and alternative treatments, where there is evidence-based information. I think this is one area where it can be tricky.
You can sometimes find a lot of things on the internet that claims about the ability of supplements to prevent or treat cancer. I think it’s really important to look at your source with a little bit of a grain of salt. If something seems too good to be true, unfortunately, it probably is.
I think where really the evidence is these days is looking at these as supportive therapies, rather than curative therapies. There’s a lot of research going on, and I think that we will see, over the coming years, these types of treatment modalities being more widely incorporated into our cancer care to support our patients.