The Field of Integrative Oncology
Ira Cantor, MD
Copyright © 2006
The field of Integrative Oncology has developed over the last 10 years primarily because many patients have wanted to explore treatment options that are not usually fully addressed in the typical oncology consultation and practice. These treatment options address issues such as (1) the role of diet, (2) the role of supplements such as vitamins and herbs, (3) the role of other therapies such as massage and acupuncture, (4) the role of the mind and how it can positively effect important functions, such as optimizing the actions of the immune system. Side by side with patients, a small group of physicians and scientists recognized that if they could scientifically investigate these options ( such as how Vitamin C works, how various herbs can effect the immune system ), and carefully integrate these new discoveries with the knowledge and treatments of up-to-date, expert, mainstream oncology, it was likely that patients would benefit.
A growing amount of scientific knowledge is now available in these areas. We know that various natural substances have the types of biological effects that are likely to be helpful to patients with malignancies. As examples, we know that Vitamin D helps cells to form normally, and high doses of Vitamin C can kill cancer cells. Medicinal mushrooms such as Maitake and Coriolus, and herbs such as Mistletoe have beneficial effects on the immune system. Fish Oils have the ability to lower inflammation, and decrease the aggressive nature of different types of cancer cells. We know from experience that therapeutic massage can improve the well being of patients, and help patients recover more quickly from surgery.
It’s important to know, however, that our knowledge in these areas is still quite limited. There are very few large scale clinical studies, for instance, looking at long term survival. So when we decide to make significant changes in our diet, take certain supplements, or meditate, these decisions are being made on the basis of promising, hopeful, but still incomplete knowledge. There are certain areas where the potential for interference with conventional treatments, or side-effects exist. The most common concern is that antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E might interfere with the benefits of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It’s therefore very important that these decisions about integrative treatments are made carefully and responsibly. A physician trained in integrative oncology can help guide a patient through these complicated realms. Unfortunately, there are many incompletely trained health practitioners in the community who will give advice that can be inappropriate and potentially harmful.
When can integrative oncology options be helpful? It’s likely that if these options are used responsibly and carefully, they can be helpful at every stage of the treatment of malignancies, but there are certain situations where the potential benefits are more likely to be realized. These include the following:
- When mainstream options don’t offer as much help as we would wish. Patients with metastatic disease, and those with malignancies that are more difficult to treat are in this category. Integrative treatment options have the potential to increase the benefits and decrease the side-effects of mainstream treatments.
- When patients are in a watch and wait mode. Most commonly, patients receive intensive mainstream treatments when their illness is first diagnosed. They are then observed with the hope that no recurrence or progression will occur. Patients often want to know what more they can do, and this is an optimal time to explore integrative oncology options.
- When mainstream treatment is likely to be very successful, but patients want to limit the side-effects of these treatments, such as fatigue and loss of appetite. Therapies such as massage and acupuncture, and mind body practices like meditation can be of benefit.
- When patients will be undergoing surgery. The use of different supplements, sometimes in higher than usual doses, which have the potential to limit tissue damage and help wound healing, can lead to a quicker recovery. Massage can also be of benefit in the recovery phase.
A consultation with a physician trained in integrative oncology can be advantageous for patients who recognize that their care can be optimized, and want to be sure that the advice and recommendations that they are receiving are based on the most up-to-date and responsible scientific information and research.
I have included other reference material, which is more specialized and meant for the professional or very well informed patient. They can be accessed under “Additional Reference Information” (see above).