Cancer Treatments

I believe the role of a natural therapist is to support the patient in whatever path they choose to take with their cancer treatment. With the increase in cancer diagnoses, modern medicine has devoted many keen minds and not an insignificant number of dollars to the treatment of cancer, and depending on the cancer, by pursuing medical treatment, the prognosis is better than it ever has been. Sometimes, however, I am reminded of the quote by British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), ‘Cure the disease and kill the patient’.

Natural remedies can be very effective in supporting you during this time, increasing energy and immunity and reducing side effects. The interaction of herbs and supplements with chemotherapy drugs is still being investigated, and some cancer specialists prefer their patients to desist from taking any thing other than the chemotherapy drugs. Other specialists actually recommend taking some supplements. So all of this conflicted advice is confusing. I would suggest you ask the medical team looking after your case whether and what they are happy for you to take during your treatment. If they are not keen on natural medicine, don’t fret. Eat a fabulous diet, knowing you will launch into your herbs when the treatment is over.

Surgery

Surgery is often the first medical treatment for cancer. Its purpose is usually to remove the primary cancer. Sometimes it is also necessary in later stages to reduce the size of a tumour causing pain or obstruction.

Diet

  • Avoid eating sugar as it dramatically decreases immune function (by affecting phagocyte activity) and slows healing.
  • Protein is needed for repairing tissue. Protein needs increase twofold during this time. This does not necessarily mean eating double the amount of food, as most of us consume more than adequate protein for our day to day needs, but it does mean keeping an eye on including protein in each meal. Meat, chicken, fish, dairy, legumes, seeds and nuts are all protein foods.
  • Recovering from surgery is a time of convalescence. Suitable foods include chicken and vegetable soup, and vegetable soup, brown rice, miso soup, steamed fish. The recovery diet should always be governed by the patient’s appetite: a hearty one is a good sign.

Remedies

  • Arnica is the first-aid homoeopathic remedy. Take a few drops or spray as soon as possible after the surgery. Arnica increases the rate of healing exponentially, reducing internal and external bruising. Take at least 3 times daily for the first week after the op.
  • Rescue Remedy (the Bach flower combination remedy), and specifically Star of Bethlehem, which is in Rescue Remedy, calms the psychological shock. Take before surgery and whenever you are feeling anxious to calm the nerves.
  • Support the immune system with a course of immune boosting herbs that may include one or more of the following: astragalus, echinacea, olive leaf, cat’s claw. Start taking these as soon as you know you need surgery, but stop 5 days before the operation. This is general advise for all herbs and supplements so that there is no chance of increased bleeding during and post surgery. Start taking again as soon as possible after surgery.
  • Vitamin C and zinc are a good team when it comes to boosting immunity and promoting healing. Take half to 1g of C twice daily and 22mg of zinc once daily. Take up until the day of the surgery (these are OK to do so) and as soon as possible afterwards.
  • After the operation add some adaptogen herbs, these remarkable herbs help the body recover from any stress, including that of surgery. Choose from these beauties; withania, Siberian ginseng, licorice, panax ginseng.
  • If there is swelling and inflammation, and there probably will be, take a strong bioflavonoid supplement that contains quercetin twice daily.
  • Anaesthetics that knock us out for the count during the operation also knock the body around afterwards, particularly the liver. Give it a little support by drinking dandelion root tea, lemon juice and water in the morning, stay away from the grog and take liver herbs for a week or so including St Mary’s thistle, dandelion root, bupleurum, globe artichoke, turmeric.
  • If antibiotics are prescribed post surgery, re-establish healthy gut flora by taking a good probiotic supplement during and for a week after the course of antibiotics.

Other

Allow yourself sufficient time to recover, surgery is a shock to the body.

Chemotherapy

A derivative of mustard gas used in WW1, chemotherapy was first used in the 1940s. It became somewhat unpopular due to its common side-effect, death. Thankfully, more effective, and less traumatic chemotherapy agents have been discovered in the decades since. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It is often used as an adjunct to other treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy. There are over 60 different drugs used for various forms of cancer. Generally given in combination to reduce the risk of cancer cells becoming resistant to them, nowadays, chemotherapy is more and more specific to the cancer cells and less deadly to the rest of the body. Nevertheless, chemotherapy does suppress the immune system and has several nasty side-effects. Chemotherapy drugs target the fast-dividing cells of cancer so other fast-dividing cells in the body such as those lining the digestive tract, bone marrow, hair follicles also bear the brunt. This explains the common symptoms of digestive problems (mouth ulcers, heartburn, nausea, diarrhoea) reduction of red and white blood cell production, and hair loss.

Common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Mouth ulcers
  • Unpleasant taste in mouth
  • Constipation and or diarrhoea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nail damage
  • Reflux
  • Lack of concentration ‘chemo brain’
  • Fatigue
  • Anaemia
  • Pins and needles
  • Lowered immunity due to lowered white blood cells
  • Hair loss
  • Fluid retention
  • Heart palpitations
  • Depression and or anxiety

Diet

  • Chemotherapy is a gruelling marathon that often takes weeks or months to complete. And like a marathon, to last the distance in tip-top form, it is vital your diet be the best it can be. Adopt the recommendations above.
  • To deal with nausea, eat very small meals quite often
  • Try to drink one fresh greeen vegetable juice daily.
  • Avoid sugar.

Remedies

  • Slippery elm helps to heal and protect mucous membranes that line the intestines. The bowel is most often affected in chemotherapy. Keeping the intestines as healthy as possible allows the nutrient from your fabulous diet to be absorbed. Slippery elm is particularly helpful for reflux. Take one teaspoon of slippery elm powder (not the tablets as you want the healing to start from the throat down) twice daily, before meals. It can be mixed with warm water, mashed into a banana, added to porridge or mixed with yoghurt. Slippery elm is a fibre and is not absorbed across the intestinal wall. This means it cannot interact with chemotherapy drugs that are given intravenously. If the drugs are taken by mouth, take the slippery elm on another day or 12 hours away from the medicine.
  • Probiotics. Chemotherapy targets the rapidly dividing cells of cancer, unfortunately, other rapidly dividing yet healthy cells are also affected, such as those lining the gastrointestinal tract. This will have a negative impacts on the gastrointestinal microflora. Taking a probiotic supplement during and after chemotherapy is recommended and may prevent diarrhoea.
  • Low iron is a common symptom of chemotherapy. This is because newly forming blood cells are affected by the medication. Your iron levels will be determined by a blood test. If you are low in iron, take a non constipating form of iron such as the liquid tonic irons available in health food stores.
  • Vitamin C and zinc lozenges - suck on 3 to 4 daily will help prevent and treat mouth ulcers.
  • Generally anti emetic (anti nausea) drugs are given along with chemotherapy. Ginger may help a little with any lingering nausea, but is not a replacement for the anti emetic medicineDrink ginger tea throughout the day. Ginger tea is made by grating or finely slicing 2 to 3cm of peeled fresh ginger root, adding to a teapot or plunger and pour on 1 litre of boiling water. Allow to seep for 8 minutes. You can make a day’s worth by placing the ginger in a thermos with hot water, it is more delicous and effective the stronger it gets.
  • Manuka honey may help to heal mouth ulcers.
  • Psyllium husks help treat both constipation and diarrhoea. The water soluble fibre helps to solidify the stool and slow down transit time in the case of diarrhoea, and will increase the size of stool and increase transit time in the case of constipation. Take 2 dessertpoons in water each day. Drink a glass of water afterwards. 
* Herbal bitters improve appetite and improve digestion. Take one teaspoon in a glass of water, sip before dinner.
  • B complex. A B-complex supplement will help supply a little energy. Folic acid (part of the B complex) is of particular importance as it is often depleted by the chemotherapy drugs. Take one strong B vitamin each morning.
  • Echinacea. A good herb for boosting immunity. It is important to support the immune system during this time, and Echinacea helps keep white blood cells levels high. Before each chemotherapy bout, wbc levels are taken, and if they are too low the chemotherapy is delayed. Other immune supporting herbs include cat’s claw, andrographis,
  • Ginkgo bilboa helps improve concentration and memory which often are affected by ‘chemo brain’. Ginkgo is also good for the circulation and may be helpful for the side-effect of pins and needles.
  • Adaptogen herbs help the body deal with stress of any kind. They improve energy levels and maintain immunity. If not during chemotherapy, definitely afterwards.

Other

  • Acupuncture can help improve energy and reduce many of the side effects of chemotherapy. As it is not ingested (very unwise if you choose to swallow the needles!) there is not the possibility of interaction with chemotherapy drugs.
  • Regular massage helps any aches and pains and is a nurturing treat during this difficult time.
  • Several countries allow the medical use of marijuana to help reduce nausea caused by chemotherapy, and also to relieve pain. Not presently legal in Australia although this may change in the future.
  • You may not feel particularly perky, but exercise will help give you a little energy, improve your sleep and help reduce constipation,
  • Meditation is an important skill to acquire and cultivate. Chemotherapy affects both mind and mood, both of which meditation helps to calm.

Post Chemotherapy

Diet

  • Eat a predominantly plant based diet
  • Follow suggestions for cancer prevention

Remedies

  • After the celebrations (a smidgeon of alcohol with bubbles is highly recommended to mark the end of long, hard haul of chemo), now is the time to detox. The liver and kidneys have done a sterling job and need to recuperate after dealing with such heavy-duty medication. Herbs for the liver include St Mary’s thistle, turmeric, yellow dock, burdock, globe artichoke, dandelion root, to be taken in a tinture or tablet form.
  • Adaptogen herbs, (mentioned above) help to restore immunity and vitality. Take for at least 2 months after treatment has ceased, these include Siberian ginseng, withania, Korean ginseng, astragalus.

Other

  • Avoid exercise that may overstretch or strain surrounding tissue.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy involves directing a series of gamma rays at a specific area. It may be applied as a solo therapy, an adjunct to surgery or combined with chemotherapy. It can also be applied as palliative treatment to reduce the size of a tumour causing pain or obstruction. The purpose of radiotherapy is to damage and destroy dividing cells, but it also destroys normal cells in the neighbourhood. Side-effects can include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, cystitis, sore, discoloured (‘burned’) and peeling skin, lower immunity and haemorrhage. Delayed side-effects include loss of hair, nerve damage and blood vessel fragility (easy bruising).

Diet

  • Garlic and seaweed helps protect healthy cells from the effect of radiation. Garlic sushi anyone?
  • Diet as for cancer chapter

Remedies

  • If you don’t like garlic, or don’t eat it every day, take a garlic supplement throughout your treatment. Seaweed also has these properties, so add to soups or salads, or take as a salad.
  • Adaptogen herbs help the body deal with effects the radiation. See p
  • After radiation treatment, there are various topical applications that will help prevent burns and promote healing of the tissue. These include:
    • cold plain flour dusted across the radiated area
    • white or green clay powder, mixed with water into a paste
    • aloe vera gel
    • vitamin E oil.
  • Other
  • Try to exercise a little everyday, avoiding overstretching or exerting muscles nearby the area being treated. Eg no chest presses if you are receiving radiation for breast cancer.
  • Meditate and reduce stress.

At a glance

Diet

  • Eat as nutritious diet as you can. Fresh vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains.
  • Although you may feel like ‘treating’ yourself with cakes and sweets, they really are not helping your body to recover. Buy instead some delicious fruit or treat yourself with some flowers instead.
  • Avoid sugar
  • If you feel too ill to eat a meal, try instead a small bowl of soup or perhaps a vegetable juice

Remedies

  • If you are having chemotherapy always ask your team at the hospital what supplements if any are allowed.
  • Garlic helps immune system and protects healthy cells against the effects of radiation
  • Vitamin C, zinc, echinacea, andrographis, will help boost your immune system. Vitamin C and zinc lozenges are good for mouth ulcers.
  • Probiotics are recommended, particularly after antibiotics have been administered post surgery and especially if you are on chemotherapy.
  • Psyllium husks may help with both diarrhoea and constipation
  • The adaptogen herbs such as withania, Siberian ginseng, rhodiola and panax ginseng will help you get through this time and to convalesce afterwards.

Other

  • Now is the time to nurture yourself. Say no to any extra demands.
  • Meditate, or at the very least engage in activities that calm you
  • The entire process from being diagnosed with cancer and throughout treatment is inherently stressful. Regular counselling can be beneficial. Talking things through with a non family member or friend can be liberating.
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