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Complementary and Integrative Testing, Therapies, and Treatment and Recovery of Breast Cancer

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Complementary and Integrative Testing, Therapies, and Treatment and Recovery of Breast Cancer

Roughly 13% of women born in the US will be affected by breast cancer in their lifetime. It is the most common type of cancer in women and can also affect men. If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may wonder if there's anything else you can do to increase your quality of life during treatment. Good news! Evidence-based integrative medicine can help improve the effectiveness of your primary cancer treatment while preserving your quality of life.

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What is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative Medicine is a root-cause approach to disease with a fundamental understanding that the body is a system. The gut communicates with the brain, the brain communicates with the immune system, the immune system communicates with the circulatory system, and so on. Rather than siloing each organ out to a specialty, integrative medicine tries to understand disease in the context of the system it exists: the human body.

For example, suppose you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer. In that case, integrative medicine practitioners will look to support you during your treatment and, at the same time, assess your medical history to see what may have predisposed you in the first place. Was it a genetic predisposition that led to your diagnosis? Chronic stress or metabolic dysfunction?

Your medical history can help your practitioner create a tailor-made treatment plan to support you during and after your diagnosis. Integrative medicine utilizes specialty lab testing that can shed light on where a patient may need support. Integrative medicine has a wide range of treatment options, from pharmaceuticals to nutraceuticals, and diet/lifestyle recommendations to address the root causes of disease and prevent further disease progression.

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer begins in the breast tissue and is the most common type of cancer in women, after skin cancers. Approximately 1 out of every 8 women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer. The most common types of breast cancer are Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and Invasive Lobular Carcinoma. Breast cancer is not gender specific and can affect men as well.

Can You Use Integrative Medicine With Chemotherapy?

Integrative oncology is the utilization of integrative medicine in the setting of cancer. This can include recommendations around nutrition, lifestyle, supplements, acupuncture, or intravenous therapy. Integrative oncology aims to increase the efficacy of primary treatment, decrease the side effects, and increase overall survival. Integrative medicine can and should be utilized alongside chemotherapy!

However, it is crucial your medical oncologist is aware you are using integrative medicine. Integrative medicine can help reduce chemotherapy-related side effects like nausea and vomiting, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), changes in taste, and cancer-related fatigue (CRF). Integrative medicine is also helpful in cancer survivors as it can help patients recover from long-term side effects of chemotherapy. Nutrition can be beneficial to address during and after treatment to affect the quality and quantity of life.

There is also emerging research around the use of certain botanical medicines to help increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Any agent that can make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy is known as a chemosensitizer. Curcumin has been studied as a chemosensitizer and has demonstrated it’s ability to regulate multiple intracellular signaling pathways in breast cancer cells. Botanical medicines that act as chemosensitizers can help overcome chemoresistance and work in synergy with chemotherapy.

Can You Use Integrative Medicine With Radiation Therapy?

Radiation therapy uses high-dose radiation to damage the DNA of cancer cells so that they stop growing. For radiation to be effective at eradicating cancer cells, it does take weeks of treatment for the DNA to become damaged enough. Radiation therapy is usually coupled with either chemotherapy, surgery, or immunotherapy for the best outcomes.

The most common side effects are changes to the skin where the radiation is being given and fatigue. There can also be radiation-induced hair loss or changes in blood counts. Integrative medicine can help mitigate these side effects to improve the quality of life during radiation, with up to 97% of patients receiving radiation using integrative medicine. It is both safe and effective to use integrative medicine alongside radiation therapy. For example, calendula is highly effective at treating radiation dermatitis and reducing radiation-related pain in breast cancer patients.

Functional and Integrative Medicine Labs To Support Treatment and Recovery of Breast Cancer

Many labs can help aid in patients' treatment and recovery of breast cancer. Below are the most commonly used in integrative medicine to address the root cause of symptoms.

Micronutrient testing

Every physiological function in the body requires micronutrients for optimal function. The SpectraCell Micronutrient Test analyzes 31 vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to determine nutritional deficiencies as they could be contributing to symptoms of fatigue or a weakened immune system. This test is a good place to start when assessing nutrition during and after treatment as nutritional deficiencies are common in those receiving chemotherapy.

GI Map

The GI-MAP® from Diagnostic Solutions Laboratory is a comprehensive stool analysis that measures gastrointestinal microbiota DNA from a single stool sample. Chemotherapy can negatively affect the gut microbiome, leading to long-term GI symptoms. It can be helpful to test the microbiome after chemotherapy to help correct imbalances or dysbiosis.  

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Complementary Integrative Medicine Therapies for Treatment and Recovery of Breast Cancer

If you have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and are interested in using integrative medicine alongside your conventional treatment, you may wonder what that might entail. The most common integrative medicine recommendations during active treatment involve nutrition, supplements, and lifestyle suggestions. Let’s take a closer look.

Nutrition for Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Many of those diagnosed with breast cancer wonder if their diet played a role in the formation of their disease. While it’s natural to want to pinpoint the cause, it is essential to remember that cancer is very complex, and the cause is usually multifactorial. However, managing nutrition during and after can be helpful for several reasons. Weight loss is common amongst cancer patients due to the side effects of treatment. Cancer-related nausea and vomiting can result in decreased food intake and, therefore, decreased overall nutrition. Managing the side effects of treatment with integrative medicine can help mitigate this weight loss and improve appetite during treatment.

To maintain adequate nutrition, breast cancer patients are advised to eat up to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, with an emphasis on cruciferous vegetables. Another aspect of nutrition during breast cancer treatment is ensuring that a patient’s macro- and micro-nutrients are adequate. If a patient cannot achieve an adequate intake of nutrients like Vitamin A, E, C from food, then supplements or intravenous therapy could be considered.

Supplements for Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Many supplements can help reduce the side effects of primary cancer treatment. It is vital to work with an integrative oncologist as they can guide you on drug-herb interactions and the proper dosage of supplements. A standard course of chemotherapy in women with breast cancer is known as AC-T (which standards for doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide followed by paclitaxel). AC-T is usually given in eight treatments, once every 3 weeks. The first four treatments are AC, and the next four are paclitaxel (T). During AC-T, it is common to experience nausea, vomiting, and low blood counts. Here are some supplements that can reduce these side effects:  

Ginger for Nausea

In a double-blind, multicenter trial, 576 cancer patients with chemotherapy-induced nausea (CIN) were randomly assigned to receive either ginger or placebo. Ginger significantly reduced CIN in patients compared to placebo. The presence of gingerols in ginger helps increase gastric motility and emptying, alleviating nausea. The standard antiemetic drugs that are prescribed are known as 5-HT3 antagonists and can sometimes cause constipation secondary to their use. Ginger is an effective way to decrease nausea without any side effects.

Probiotics for Cognitive Impairment

Many breast cancer patients feel like they are not as cognitively sharp after chemotherapy, making it essential not to overlook the gut-brain axis. Addressing the microbiome through probiotic supplementation to boost healthy gut bacteria during chemotherapy could help improve cognitive and psychological issues in the long term.

Mind-Body Techniques for Breast Cancer Patients

Anxiety and depression in breast cancer patients have now been shown to be associated with an increase in recurrence and a decrease in overall survival. It is essential to screen for both at the time of diagnosis and during treatment. Many mind-body techniques can help increase the quality of life in breast cancer patients and improve symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. These techniques include yoga, meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and acupuncture.

Yoga + Mediation

Yoga is a practice for the body, the mind, and the spirit. It is rooted in spirituality and ancient Indian philosophy. Yoga integrates breathwork with physical postures, known as asanas, and meditation techniques. In recent years, there has been evidence linking the regular practice of yoga to increased health-related quality of life in breast cancer patients. Yoga can also help improve physical function and decrease fatigue in breast cancer patients undergoing treatment. Yoga classes are often tailored to cancer patients and can be a great place to build community.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MSBR, is an 8-week program created to reduce stress by building awareness of the present moment. It cultivates mindfulness and acceptance of the present moment without judgment. This concept has been applied to various chronic illnesses, but with breast cancer, it has been shown to improve fatigue and restore immune system function. Mindfulness techniques help our body escape survival mode and produce fewer stress hormones. These stress hormones can inhibit the proper function of your immune system.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a type of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that aims to support the body's qi, or vital force. Acupuncture has been shown to be helpful in breast cancer patients on aromatase inhibitors to improve joint pain. In breast cancer patients on taxane drugs (like docetaxel and paclitaxel), acupuncture can help reduce chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). Acupuncture also benefits cancer survivors and can improve cancer-related fatigue and nausea during and after treatment.  

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Summary

Integrative medicine is safe and effective when used alongside primary cancer treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation in breast cancer patients. If you have recently been diagnosed or are currently undergoing treatment, find a practitioner trained in integrative oncology to help support you on your journey. In addition to decreasing side effects, an integrative oncologist can also guide patients on diet, nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations during and after cancer treatment.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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