We often describe cancer according to where it originates, such as breast cancer, lung cancer, or pancreatic cancer. This terminology can create a mindset that cancer, and its adverse effects, are isolated to a specific area. However, cancer impacts the whole individual, not just one specific organ. A growing body of evidence supports benefits to caring for all aspects of the person, including the mind, body, and spirit.
Treating cancer is inevitably complex, and treatment management depends not only on specific properties of cancer but also characteristics of the individual patient, such as age or comorbidities. Conventional medicine based on biomedical research drives cancer treatment decisions but, cancer patients are increasingly incorporating complementary approaches into their individualized treatment program.
Combining conventional and complementary therapies to treat the whole patient compromises integrative oncology. Comprehensively, integrative oncology is defined as “a patient-centered, evidence-informed field of cancer care that utilizes mind-body practices, natural products, and/or lifestyle modifications from different traditions alongside conventional cancer treatments.” In addition to surgery, drugs, and other medical interventions, integrative oncology includes complementary treatments like patient support groups and massage therapy. While many such alternative approaches are generally accepted to benefit overall health, it is not standard for oncologists to make or follow up on such recommendations.
Emerging research concentrates on the value of complementary therapies, but a lack of clinical studies has prevented standardized incorporation into medical practice. To address this, a new report in The Journal of Oncology investigated how institutional commitment to integrative oncology approaches affected breast cancer survivorship.
The authors collected data from breast cancer patient claims and surveys completed by 103 oncologists. From these sources, the researchers assessed the level of support for twelve complementary therapies offered at the institutions. The complementary therapies considered included nutrition and exercise consultation, patient support groups, spiritual services, psycho-oncology counseling, massage therapy, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, music or art therapy, reiki or healing touch, and tai chi or qi gong. The researchers also collected outcome data of almost 200 breast cancer patients treated at 103 US cancer treatment centers. The patients all received conventional treatment such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation, or surgery.
The study ranked the institutions with low, low-mid, mid-high, or high levels of support for complementary therapies. Notably, breast cancer patients treated at institutions ranked at low-mid, mid-high, or high levels of support were three times more likely to achieve five-year survival than those treated at low-ranking institutions.
The authors discussed ways low-scoring institutions can increase support of alternative therapies and thus, possibly increase survival among their patients. One suggestion encourages providing online resources and discussing complementary treatments during consultations. The authors also suggest that offering access to some therapies on-site, free of cost, could increase compliance.
Overall, the study concluded that breast cancer patients treated at hospitals committed to providing integrative oncology services exhibited longer survival than patients treated at hospitals that did not emphasize these diverse approaches. Comprehensive, larger-scale studies to confirm these findings could help push these approaches into mainstream medical practice.