Holisitic approaches to cancer treatment - Alternate and complimentary therapies

By Dr Vishal Rao U S

Holistic medicine in cancer care

Holistic medicine focuses on how the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements of the body are interconnected to maintain wellness, or holistic health. When one part of the body or mind is not working properly, it is believed to affect the whole person. Holistic approaches focus on the whole person rather than just on the illness or part of the body that is not healthy.

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that holistic medicine, when used without mainstream or conventional medicine, is effective in treating cancer or any other disease. However, many health professionals promote healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising, eating a nutritious diet, not smoking, and managing stress as important in maintaining good health. Holistic methods are becoming more common in mainstream care and may be used as complementary therapy or preventive care.

In mainstream medicine, a holistic approach generally means a more inclusive approach to a person’s health, one that includes the patient’s social and cultural situation as well as his or her illness. This term holistic is used by doctors to reflect a focus on a person’s overall health, a focus that includes prevention, rehabilitation, and other approaches, rather than illness alone. Nurses, for example, may speak of the “biopsychosocial sphere” of a patient. This means that a person’s health includes the mind, body, and spirit, as well as the surrounding culture and environment. This can include one’s family situation, housing, employment, insurance, and more, since these all have an impact on the patient and his or her health. If all these factors are taken into account when a person is treated for cancer, it may make treatment easier and improve chances of success.

How is it promoted for use?
Holistic medicine approaches health and disease from several angles. The approach suggests that a person should treat not only the illness but the whole self to reach a higher level of wellness. For example, practitioners may treat cancer by changing diet and behavior and adding social support groups and counseling. Others may suggest taking botanical supplements and using complementary therapies, such as art therapy, hypnosis, imagery, meditation, psychotherapy, spirituality and prayer, and yoga. These approaches can be used with conventional medical treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy. Combining these different methods can help a person take control of his or her situation and attain a feeling of total wellness -- spiritually, physically, and mentally.

Some supporters of holistic medicine claim, however, that conventional medicine does not work, and that only the holistic approach to cancer and other diseases is effective. They may offer a “cure” based on individual stories of success or personal experiences, which are very hard to prove. Some of the types of cancer that they claim can be cured by holistic methods include cancers of the bone, breast, tongue, liver, lung, throat, skin, testicle, prostate, ovary, uterus, stomach, intestine, colon, brain, pancreas, spleen, kidney, and bladder, as well as leukemia, lymphoma, and melanoma.

What does it involve?
The field of holistic medicine is very diverse and broad. Some providers define holistic oncology as including emotional and spiritual care, while others focus on these aspects to the exclusion of the physical. There are many different techniques and approaches in holistic medicine, depending on the practitioner, the person, and the illness. All, however, stress the use of treatments that encourage the body’s natural healing system and take into account the person as a whole.

Holistic medicine can involve the use of conventional and alternative therapies but focuses mostly on lifestyle changes. A holistic approach to stomach cancer might include reducing sodium intake, increasing intake of antioxidants through food or vitamins, eliminating Helicobacter pylori (type of bacteria found in the stomach), quitting smoking, improving oral hygiene, avoiding foods that contain genotoxic agents, and increasing the amount of vegetables and fruits consumed.

Holistic medicine can also include natural supplements that cause the same changes as conventional drugs. For instance, synthetic interferon is currently used to treat some people with cancer. A holistic approach might be to take high doses of intravenous vitamin C instead, in an attempt to stimulate the body’s production of its own interferon.

The American Holistic Association says that healthy lifestyle habits will improve a person’s energy and vitality. Those habits might include exercising, eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, learning how to breathe properly, taking antioxidants and supplements, and using acupuncture, acupressure, healing touch, craniosacral therapy, yoga, qigong, and other methods.

What is the history behind it?
Holistic medicine has its roots in several ancient healing traditions that stress healthy living and being in harmony with nature. Socrates promoted a holistic approach. Plato was another advocate of holism, advising doctors to respect the relationship between mind and body. Hippocrates emphasized the body’s ability to heal itself and cautioned doctors not to interfere with that process.

It was not until 1926, however, that Jan Christiaan Smuts coined the term “holism,” which gave rise to the more integrated concept of psychosomatic medicine now known as holistic medicine. In the 1970s, holistic became a more common term. Today, holistic medicine is known as an approach to life and health that brings together the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person in order to create a total sense of well-being.

What is the evidence?
Although there has been research on various complementary methods that may be considered part of a holistic approach, scientific research generally does not focus on holistic medicine by itself as a cure for cancer or any other disease. Available scientific evidence does not support the idea that alternative practitioners are more effective than conventional physicians in persuading their patients to improve their lifestyle. Nor have available scientific studies shown that any of these approaches are effective or cost-effective against any disease if holistic methods are used without conventional medical treatment.

Some health care professionals suggest that cancer pain and some side effects of treatment can be managed with a holistic approach that includes the physical, psychological, and spiritual factors involved with each person. Increasingly, the health care team comprises a diverse and varied group of health care professionals. Members of this team are drawn from the specialties of medicine, nursing, surgery, radiation therapy, oncology, psychiatry, psychology, and social work. In addition, the team may call on dietitians, physical therapists, and the clergy for support. Health professionals realize that a person's health depends on the balance of physical, psychological, social, and cultural forces. However, available scientific evidence does not support claims that holistic medicine alone can cure illness.

Are there any possible problems or complications?
Some substances may not have been thoroughly tested to find out how they interact with medicines, foods, or dietary supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Adopting healthy habits related to diet, exercise, emotional, and spiritual well-being is considered important to maintaining good health. In fact, studies have shown that certain dietary changes and regular exercise can reduce your risk of some kinds of cancer. However, relying on healthy habits or holistic measures alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

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