Climbing the Winding Staircase: Navigating Complementary Approaches to Cancer Care

by Oncology Social Worker Rita Abdallah, LISW-S, LCSW-C, ACSW

Complementary Approaches to CancerWhen patients enter the cancer center doors for the first time, they see a tall, spiraling staircase. The mystery unfolds as they unwillingly take their first step onto the staircase. With the help of a medical team and loved ones, patients slowly take on this long and challenging climb. Some days, the way up looks clear and easy; other days the staircase seems dusty and difficult.

Swimming has been a lifelong passion for Cathy, a middle-aged woman with breast cancer. Cathy’s treatment plan included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. At her initial oncology visit, Cathy and her doctor openly discussed when she could return to the pool. At first, Cathy adjusted her swimming routine to shorter distances. She updated the oncologist on her progress and/or setbacks. Cathy listened carefully to her oncologist for guidance. In time, she went back to swimming at her own pace. Cathy was so happy to reconnect with her body and find her old self again.

Patients soon realize that cancer is a series of steps involving physical, emotional, mental and spiritual effort. Regardless of how fast or how hard the stairs are climbed, patients desire options that minimize suffering and maximize quality of life. Outside of conventional medicine, they may discover less invasive ways of caring for themselves. Complementary Alternative Medicine, or CAM, offers cancer patients chances to feel better and reclaim some of their health choices. When it comes to using CAM and complementary approaches to cancer care, patients need to talk to their healthcare providers, ask questions and carefully evaluate the risks and benefits of each therapy.

What is CAM?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, CAM is defined as:

  • If a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
  • If a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”

Other useful terms are “Integrative Medicine” which coordinates conventional and complementary approaches within care settings. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health officially uses “Complementary Health Approaches” to cover categories ranging from natural products to mind and body practices.

Talking to your healthcare team about CAM

When it comes to talking to healthcare providers about complementary health approaches, patients are hesitant to take that first step. AARP and The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine asked 1,559 people age 50 and older about their use of CAM and why they don’t talk about it at the clinic. Respondents reported that doctors don’t ask about their CAM approaches and patients don’t know they should disclose this information. Some patients believe doctors don’t have time to talk, lack knowledge about CAM and/or discourage patients from using it.

In the cancer setting, it is crucial for patients and the healthcare team to talk about complementary approaches. When chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery, transplants and radiation may be a part of the treatment plan, the healthcare team appreciates a full picture of all healthcare choices made by patients. Open and ongoing communication is essential for reducing and avoiding contraindications, undue harm or unknown reactions.  An excellent resource, full of tips, worksheets and resources is a downloadable workbook published by the National Cancer Institute called “Talking about Complementary and Alternative Medicine.” It also includes a great list of questions for patients to take with them to their medical appointment. If patients don’t have the energy or want help with this conversation, they should bring a trusted family member or friend for support.

Risks and benefits of CAM

Doctors and patients share similar challenges with it comes to determine which complementary approaches are proven, safe and effective. Some therapies are not regulated while others are not standardized. The body of knowledge is fast growing but limited depending on use of complementary therapies for specific cancer stages and disease types. Studies may involve animal subjects but not human testing because of unfamiliar side effects. The American Cancer Society has more detailed information on this subject.

Climbing CAM stairs

Once patients get closer to selecting a doctor-approved complementary therapy, they begin the search of a professional to get help. Use these tips to ensure the experience is a positive and favorable one.

  • Check out the latest research on a specific CAM approach
  • Ask your health insurance provider if coverage available
  • Get referrals from friends/family/healthcare provider
  • Find out the practitioner’s education, training, licensing and certifications
  • Call local cancer organization
  • Carefully search online and check sources
  • Try your chosen CAM approach a few times. If it isn’t working out, try something else or take a break. Don’t buy pricy packages or invest lots of time until this option meets your wellness objectives.

To learn more about CAM and Cancer, register for our free live webinar on February 22, 2017. Oncology Social Worker Rita Abdallah will present Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) and Cancer: Show Me the Proof! Register today! 

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