Integrative Vs Traditional Medicine – How the two can work together

19 Aug 2021

If you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s only natural to want to do everything and anything you can to support your treatment plan. Questions, such as ‘How can I get myself through with minimal pain?’ and ‘Is there anything else I can do to support my treatment?’ may come to mind.

And you’re not alone; many cancer patients explore treatments, foods, and techniques that come from outside their oncologist’s office to complement their treatment plans. Research even suggests that up to 87% of breast cancer patients incorporate some kind of alternative therapies alongside their conventional treatment plan.

The choice of treatments
What’s important, however, is to understand the difference between ‘integrative’ or ‘holistic’ medicine and ‘alternative medicine’, and how each approach fits in with traditional medicine. A quick refresher is:

Alternative medicine is medicine that is used in place of conventional, evidence-based medical care.

Complementary medicines are treatments used in conjunction with conventional medical care, such as dietary and nutritional supplements, yoga or meditation.

Integrative or holistic medicine is a blend of both conventional and complementary therapies; using evidence-based approaches to improve a patient’s overall health and wellbeing.

Seeking positive outcomes
Medical oncologist, Dr Sanjeev Kumar, says that while alternative medicines can be beneficial, an integrated approach is the best way to ensure a positive outcome for patients.

“At Chris O’Brien Lifehouse we work side by side with supportive care physicians,” explains Dr Kumar. “And we find a way of bringing together both standard medical practice and complementary medical practice in an open, explicit and honest way.”

Dr Kumar also tries to educate his patients about the use of complementary therapies, how they can help and how they fit into their traditional treatment plan. Based on the latest evidence, he gives patients a handout suggesting the most effective supplements for their situation, as well as a list of supplements to avoid.

Complementary Complications 
While Dr Kumar understands the eagerness of patients to try alternative medicine, some therapies can complement treatment, while others run the risk of making it less effective. That’s why, he says, it’s important that patients work with their medical teams when planning treatments.

“Obviously we don't want any supplements to run the risk of interacting with standard treatments or making toxicity worse,” he explains. “Doctors have to be willing and able to accept and accommodate a patient’s desires to integrate complementary therapies as well, but always being aware of the fact that we can potentially reduce the efficacy of standard treatments and increased toxicity.”

Incorporating exercise
One beneficial complementary therapy which has a huge amount of evidence behind it for cancer patients is physical activity.

Dr Kumar is currently involved in a clinical trial lead by Dr Sara Wahlroos at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre that incorporates weight training and an exercise regime directly after neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Though he admits that most patients wouldn’t necessarily feel like physical activity after chemo…

“The idea of that would be probably quite provocative for a lot of patients, but we based that on really interesting data demonstrating that we see more infiltration of immune cells into cancer in response to activity or physical activity,” Dr Kumar explains. “So, patients literally go straight from the chemotherapy suite to a gymnasium where they undergo weight training.”

And while the results of that study are still being collated, Dr Kumar advises that integrated physical activity is a complementary therapy that is incredibly important to a patient’s overall health.

“Physical activity is absolutely important for cancer patients,” explains Dr Kumar. “Obviously in the setting of COVID-19 we have to be a little bit more careful, but by incorporating physical activity into the standard treatment we find our patients are able to tolerate their treatment better”.

This includes regular walks, weightlifting, yoga, and Pilates, as well as other low-impact exercises.