What Is Holistic Cancer Care?

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When you think of cancer care, you probably think of the therapies recommended to fight the cancer itself: chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and surgery. However, if you have cancer, you might know already that dealing with cancer also affects your mental, emotional, and sometimes spiritual health.

That’s why many doctors are adopting a holistic approach to cancer treatment, in which focus is shifted to you as a whole person, and care is given to your body, mind, and spirit, not just the disease. Holistic cancer care is growing in popularity as both patients and healthcare providers recognize the importance of caring for the patient as a whole. This approach incorporates nontraditional complementary treatments, like acupuncture and nutritional counseling, alongside conventional therapies to greatly increase your quality of life while caring for all aspects of your health.

The key to holistic care is the combination of conventional treatments with complementary therapies, which are techniques that focus on improving quality of life and wellbeing. They can include treatments that focus on the connection between your body and mind, or involve using ingredients found in nature, like certain herbs and fragrant plant-based oils, to promote healing and general wellness. Complementary therapies may often be referred to as “alternative” therapies, but it’s important to differentiate between the two terms. Complementary therapies describe nontraditional treatments used in conjunction with conventional treatments. Alternative therapies describe nontraditional treatments used to replace conventional treatments. Holistic care melds traditional and nontraditional treatment strategies together to get the best of both. And doctors who practice holistic cancer care will only recommend using complementary therapies that are clinically proven to benefit patients.

If you’re like a growing number of patients interested in holistic care, keep in mind it’s important to work with trained professionals or those recommended by your doctor to ensure you receive treatment in as safe a manner as possible. Your oncologist can help you determine the right balance between traditional cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, and complementary treatments that address any mental, emotional, or spiritual problems you might be facing.

Why is holistic care a good fit for people with cancer?

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s not uncommon for you to want to try any treatment that might help you. And while medical science has proven that conventional treatments like chemo and radiation are your best option for destroying cancer cells, it’s important to also prioritize your overall wellbeing. Studies show that patients with strong mental and physical health are more equipped to fight cancer—they respond better to traditional treatments and report better quality of life during the process. While some of these treatments might not play a direct role in curing your cancer, you may find that they help you cope with stress and unpleasant side effects caused by your disease and your traditional cancer treatments, such as nausea, anxiety, and fatigue.

What types of complementary treatments are available to people with cancer?

There are many types of complementary treatments available to you if you have cancer. Because your cancer journey is unique, you might benefit from one or a combination of complementary treatments. Check with your doctor before beginning any treatment to make sure it’s safe for you to try.

  • Acupuncture – used in China and other Asian countries for centuries, acupuncture involves the use of tiny needles inserted into your skin at specific points. Clinical studies show acupuncture can help relieve pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and sleeping problems.

  • Massage therapy – many studies suggest massage therapy helps improve quality of life for people living with cancer. Massage may help you relax more, sleep better, and have less anxiety, pain, nausea, and fatigue.

  • Meditation – mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to your breath while letting your thoughts pass through your mind without judgment. This practice could help you relieve stress and improve your general quality of life.

  • Aromatherapy – using essential oils from flowers, herbs, and trees, aromatherapy can help to improve your emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Certain aromas may help reduce your anxiety and stress.

  • Nutrition counseling – a large part of feeling better and staying strong during your cancer journey involves eating the right types of foods. Good nutrition from whole food sources can help you keep up your strength, better tolerate any side effects of treatment you may experience, lower your chances of getting an infection, heal faster, and even respond better to treatment.

While treatments like chemotherapy and radiation are proven to effectively fight cancer, it is also important to focus on your emotional and spiritual well-being as you heal. Complementary treatments can help you achieve your wellness goals after your diagnosis and during conventional cancer therapy. Ask your oncologist about the best holistic strategy for your health goals– that way, you can both be part of a plan to help you achieve the best overall health possible.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 20

  1. Principles of Holistic Medicine. Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, American Holistic Health Association. https://ahha.org/selfhelp-articles/principles-of-holistic-medicine/

  2. Effective Factors in Providing Holistic Care: A Qualitative Study. Indian Journal of Palliative Care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4441185/

  3. What Are Complementary and Alternative Methods? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-and-cancer/what-are-cam.html

  4. Alternative cancer treatments: 10 options to consider. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/in-depth/cancer-treatment/art-20047246

  5. Acupuncture – Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/acupuncture-pdq

  6. The benefits of oncology massage. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/cancerwise/2010/07/the-benefits-of-oncology-massage-1.html

  7. What Kinds of Cancer Treatment Are There? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-and-cancer/kinds-of-treatment.html

  8. Aromatherapy and Essential Oils – Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/aromatherapy-pdq

  9. Benefits of good nutrition during cancer treatment. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/staying-active/nutrition/nutrition-during-treatment/benefits.html

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