Integrative oncology: Lifestyle medicine for people with cancer

By Nicole Brudos Ferrara

Integrative medicine combines conventional Western medicine with complementary and alternative treatments that have been researched and proven to be safe and effective in healing. Integrative oncology uses integrative medicine as part of standard cancer care.

"Integrative oncology is a practice where we use lifestyle medicine like dietary modifications, stress reduction, exercise, supplements and mind-body practices," says Stacy D'Andre, M.D., a Mayo Clinic medical and integrative oncologist. "We combine all of these practices to help our cancer patients improve quality of life and hopefully improve treatment outcomes, as well."

Integrative oncology can help people with cancer feel better by reducing the fatigue, nausea, pain, anxiety and other symptoms that can come with cancer and cancer treatment.

If you are living with cancer or caring for someone who is, here's an overview of how integrative oncology can ease the burden of cancer:

Integrative oncology starts with healthy habits.

Integrative oncologists help people develop healthy habits to better cope with the stress of living with cancer. "Lifestyle issues are really the foundation of what we work on. Diet, exercise, stress and sleep — all of these things are the foundation to improving health in general,” says Dr. D'Andre.

Dr. D'Andre says healthy habits during cancer treatment are the same habits everyone should adopt for optimal health:

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and choose whole grains and lean proteins.
  • Limit your intake of processed and red meats.
  • Exercise regularly. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene to achieve at least seven hours of sleep per night.
  • Work to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start.
  • Limit your sun exposure, wear protective clothing and apply sunscreen.

Integrative oncology can help people at each stage of the cancer journey.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis and making decisions about treatment can cause stress. Cancer can cause a long list of signs and symptoms, including fatigue and pain. Conventional treatments for cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, also can cause fatigue, pain and stress, as well as nausea, diarrhea or constipation, weight loss and other complications. And some of these complications linger after treatment has ended.

Integrative oncologists counsel people receiving cancer treatment on practices that can help relieve these side effects and improve treatment outcomes. They help cancer patients adopt a healthy lifestyle and lose weight, understand which herbal and dietary supplements are safe to take, and recommend integrative medicine practices that might help manage a person's symptoms.

"We also see people after they've completed cancer treatment to help them cope with lingering symptoms and lifestyle modification," says Dr. D'Andre.

When treatment is not an option as part of palliative care, integrative oncologists also can help people manage their symptoms and quality of life.

Integrative oncology is individualized for each patient.

Integrative oncologists work with patients to determine which integrative medicine practices might work well based on individual needs. Health care professionals can now choose from a range of evidence-based approaches that may help, including:

  • Acupuncture and acupressure
    During acupuncture treatment, a practitioner inserts tiny needles into your skin at precise points. Studies show acupuncture may help relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy. Acupuncture also may help relieve certain types of pain in people with cancer. Acupressure is a technique related to acupuncture where mild pressure is applied to certain areas, such as the wrist, to help relieve nausea.
  • Aromatherapy
    In aromatherapy, fragrant oils are used to provide a calming sensation. Oils, infused with scents such as lavender, can be applied to your skin during a massage, or the oils can be added to bath water. Fragrant oils also can be heated to release their scents into the air. Aromatherapy may help relieve nausea, pain and stress.
  • Exercise
    Adding more movement to your day may help you manage signs and symptoms during and after cancer treatment. Gentle exercise may help relieve fatigue and stress and help you sleep better. Many studies show that an exercise program may help people with cancer live longer and improve their overall quality of life.
  • Massage
    During a massage, your practitioner kneads your skin, muscles and tendons in an effort to relieve muscle tension and stress, and promote relaxation. Studies have found that massage can help relieve pain in people with cancer. It also can help relieve anxiety, fatigue and stress.
  • Meditation
    The practice of meditation involves focusing your mind on one image, sound or idea, such as a positive thought, to reach a state of deep concentration. When meditating, you also might perform deep-breathing or relaxation exercises. Meditation may help people with cancer by relieving anxiety and stress, and improving mood.
  • Music therapy
    During music therapy sessions, you might listen to music, play instruments, sing songs or write lyrics. A trained music therapist may lead you through activities designed to meet your specific needs, or you may participate in music therapy in a group setting. Music therapy may help relieve pain, control nausea and vomiting, and deal with anxiety and stress.
  • Relaxation techniques
    Relaxation techniques focus your attention on calming your mind and relaxing your muscles. They might include visualization exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. Relaxation techniques may help relieve anxiety and fatigue. They also may help people with cancer sleep better.
  • Tai chi
    This form of exercise incorporates gentle movements and deep breathing. Tai chi can be led by an instructor, or you can learn tai chi on your own following books or videos. Practicing tai chi may help relieve stress.
  • Yoga
    This activity combines stretching exercises with deep breathing. During a yoga session, you position your body in various poses that require bending, twisting and stretching. Yoga may provide some stress relief for people with cancer, and it has been shown to improve sleep and reduce fatigue.

Integrative oncology is growing in acceptance and popularity.

Integrative oncology is a new field, and trained integrative oncologists are not yet easy to find, according to Dr. D'Andre. But integrative medicine is now being used at many cancer centers.

"There's a huge patient demand for this. There are integrative medicine practices now at most major academic centers and even in the community, which is different than it has been in the past," says Dr. D'Andre.

If your health care team doesn't have an integrative oncologist on staff, ask if an integrative medicine program in the area can help.

"The great thing about this type of practice is that it really empowers the patient," says Dr. D'Andre. "They're the ones doing the work — working on their diet, doing the exercise — we're just guiding them. These are things they can do and control to improve their health and outcomes."

Learn more

Watch this "Mayo Clinic Q&A" podcast video to hear Dr. D'Andre explain how integrative oncology helps people with cancer and discuss integrative medicine research underway at Mayo Clinic:

Mayo Clinic's Cancer Education Center offers free virtual classes that explore integrative medicine practices. Learn more.

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