When it comes to treating cancer, many people think of chemotherapy and radiation as the go-to standards of care. But another type of therapy, called integrative medicine, is becoming a crucial part of a cancer treatment plan.

Integrative medicine includes evidence-based practices that complement traditional cancer treatment. It features services like nutrition counseling and exercise coaching, which can improve your quality of life during and after treatment — and help reduce risk of recurrence.

“Integrative medicine deals with the underlying cause of disease,” says Laurie Herscher, MD, a radiation oncologist and integrative medicine expert at Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center. “It’s more about why someone has the disease and the root cause of the medical problems.”

A Wide Range of Integrative Medicine Methods

Integrative medicine helps you take a more active role to reduce the side effects of treatment and lower your risk of cancer recurring. With these key goals, integrative medicine typically includes:

  • Diet and nutrition counseling
  • Exercise programs and coaching
  • Stress management techniques, such as deep breathing (or “belly breathing”)
  • Lifestyle review, including sleep health advice
  • Spiritual and emotional support
  • Pain management techniques, including meditation and acupuncture

“The biggest misconception about integrative medicine is that it is some kind of alternative medicine,” Dr. Herscher explains. “Unlike alternative medicine, integrative medicine is entirely evidence-based — there is a lot of published data supporting integrative medicine practices in cancer treatment and risk reduction.” 

Using Integrative Medicine to Reduce Risk of Recurrence

One key pillar of integrative medicine is changing lifestyle habits that can increase the risk of cancer or cancer coming back. Addressing nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep habits and exposure to environmental toxins are all an important part of Dr. Herscher’s integrative medicine approach.

“These five lifestyle arenas play a big role in our physiological functions and metabolic function, all of which plays a role in cancer risk and how it is likely cancer will recur,” she says.

Diet is often one of the first topics patients bring up during an integrative medicine consultation. Many studies have shown that sugar can significantly increase the risk of cancer, and processed foods – particularly processed meat – have also been linked to increased cancer risk.

Dr. Herscher coaches patients to eat lots of vegetables and fruits and to minimize intake of sugar, simple carbohydrates and processed food.

Stress management is also a crucial component to reducing cancer risk, not only because it can change our body chemistry and metabolism, but because it has an effect on so many other lifestyle factors.

“I think of stress management as the foundation of a healthy building,” Dr. Herscher explains. “When people are stressed, they don’t sleep well, don’t make good food choices and they don’t have time to exercise — it turns out stress is a very important piece to the puzzle.” 

How Integrative Medicine Helps Side Effects

Aside from reducing cancer risk, integrative medicine practices have also been shown to help minimize the side effects of cancer treatment and improve outcomes. For example:

  • Nutrition counseling can help patients craft a diet that eases nausea and avoids weight loss or weight gain
  • Exercise programs can help patients reduce cancer-related fatigue
  • Meditation and relaxation techniques can help ease pain from cancer or treatment
  • Acupuncture can reduce nausea and pain from treatment

Every patient is different, Dr. Herscher adds, which is why she has unique integrative medicine recommendations for each individual’s situation.

Giving Patients More Control

One of the most powerful benefits to integrative medicine is giving you more power over your treatment and health. This can be especially important at a time when patients may feel like they’ve lost control.

“When people are diagnosed with cancer there are a lot of emotional side effects, but one of the most common feelings is a loss of control,” Dr. Herscher says. “Using an integrative medicine approach gives back that sense of control, and can show patients what they can do to help themselves during an otherwise scary time.”

Learn more about integrative therapies and how they can help patients during and after cancer treatment.