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Life Support

Helping body and soul through cancer treatment

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Life Support

Natural strategies can be extremely helpful to people going through cancer treatment. Learn about mistletoe injections, intravenous vitamin C infusions, yoga, acupuncture, and supplements that can help ease the journey through treatment.

More than 40 percent of all Canadians can expect to receive treatment for cancer in their lifetime. Therapies may range from surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation to hormonal and immune agents. With schedules that may last anywhere from days to a lifetime, ensuring good quality of life during treatment is essential. While a solid nutritional and exercise plan can do wonders for treatment side effects, natural strategies, including injections, supplements, and physical therapies, can offer a great deal of additional support. Remember, always consult your health care practitioner before taking supplements to ensure they are right for you.

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Mistletoe—not just for lovers

A mention of mistletoe may conjure up scenes of holiday celebrations and unwanted public displays of affection. But this botanical superstar is far more than just a bit of doorway décor, having evolved into a sophisticated and specialized supportive agent for those facing a cancer diagnosis.

Mistletoe has its roots in anthroposophic medicine, and its first use in cancer treatment was reported about 100 years ago in Switzerland. Mistletoe can only grow on the branches of another tree, typically apple, oak, fir, or pine, among other species. The freeloading spirit of this plant may have inspired its use in cancer treatment, as it beautifully mirrors the parasitic nature of this disease.

Today, mistletoe is extensively used alongside conventional treatments in some European countries and is slowly gaining recognition in North America. Published studies show that mistletoe injections can have real benefit for patients suffering from fatigue and other symptoms compromising their quality of life. Those using mistletoe may be able to handle treatment more easily and experience fewer chemotherapy-related side effects.

Although high quality human studies are still in development, available research suggests that mistletoe has anticancer effects and may help people to live longer with cancer. Plant chemicals found in mistletoe can influence our immune systems, stimulating the activity of our tumour-seeking natural killer cells. Mistletoe may therefore have both direct and indirect cancer-killing action.

Patients typically inject mistletoe at home several times a week or receive it intravenously in a clinical setting. Some ongoing research suggests mistletoe could be used in the bladder for early cancers of this organ or injected directly into tumour tissue in other cancers.

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Intravenous vitamin C

A second injection therapy garnering some interest in recent years is intravenous vitamin C (IVC). Pioneered by the work of chemist Linus Pauling in the 1970s, vitamin C can be given intravenously to bypass the digestive tract and achieve extraordinarily high blood levels.

High-dose IVC acts very differently than the well-known antioxidant we take for cold and flu prevention. At levels that often range from 40 to 100 g, IVC is a pro-oxidant, wreaking havoc upon the DNA of cancer cells but leaving normal cells unharmed. IVC may also decrease markers of inflammation, calming internal signals that can promote cancer growth.

Published clinical trials of IVC are small and have typically involved people with very advanced disease; yet even so, some benefits have consistently emerged. Some reports point to longer-than-expected survival times, while others describe patients with cancers that didn’t progress while receiving IVC. Although IVC cannot currently be considered as a direct alternative to chemotherapy, it may provide some additional anticancer action in combination with other treatments.

IVC may give some essential quality of life support during treatment. Patients struggling with common cancer-associated concerns such as pain, fatigue, and nausea may find that IVC provides valuable relief of these symptoms. Similar to mistletoe, IVC can be considered a novel and helpful tool to consider during treatment for cancer.

Although some integrative medical doctors may offer IVC and mistletoe therapy in Canada, the majority of patients receive these treatments through licensed naturopathic doctors. In many provinces, additional training and licensing is required, and in areas where NDs are not regulated, these treatment options are, unfortunately, very difficult to access.

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Melatonin

For many of us, melatonin is a go-to natural solution for insomnia. While studies show that this natural hormone can improve sleep and cognitive function in people with cancer, its additional benefits make it an important complement to conventional care.

Taking melatonin may reduce skin irritation during radiation and may protect healthy cells during chemotherapy. In some studies, people taking melatonin had higher survival rates and less depression in the post-treatment period. Melatonin can contribute significantly to quality of life both during and after treatment.

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Restorative yoga

Yoga may not be the first activity that comes to mind in the context of cancer care but perhaps it should be. The slow, healing postures of a restorative yoga practice harmonize breath and movement and have a profound effect on stress and anxiety.

Gentle movement can be particularly helpful for patients dealing with fatigue, mood changes, and even nausea during treatment. Sleep, that elusive panacea, can be helped by regular yoga practice. Studies show that yoga can decrease the sometimes-debilitating pain associated with hormone blocking drugs, while reducing markers of inflammation in the body. Best of all, yoga can be practised in either a group or quiet solitude at home in your comfiest pyjamas.

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Probiotics

Probiotics are well known to most natural health advocates for their profoundly beneficial impact on digestive and immune function. In the sphere of cancer care, probiotics offer a great deal of benefit to treatment-tired tummies, helping to regulate both constipation and diarrhea associated with chemotherapy and radiation. Using probiotics around the time of surgery can reduce the risk of infections and complications, speeding healing and recovery.

Exciting new research names probiotics as supportive agents in cancer prevention, linking disturbed gut flora with increased cancer risk. Imbalanced flora may upset the delicate equilibrium that exists between two types of cells in our immune systems, Th1 and Th2 cells. A higher proportion of Th1 cells may mean higher survival rates in some cancers, and you guessed it, probiotic strains can shift the immune system in this direction. Probiotics may prove to be an essential cancer prevention strategy in the future.

Many natural substances can provide essential support to people dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Treatments such as mistletoe, intravenous vitamin C, melatonin, restorative yoga practices, and probiotics can smooth the journey through cancer treatment.

Additional strategies to consider during cancer treatment

StrategyBenefits
vitamin Dsufficient blood levels reduce the risk of cancer and may support better response to treatment
acupuncture and acupressureessential tools in managing side effects such as nausea, pain, hot flashes, sleep disturbance, and anxiety
physiotherapycan support individualized exercise plans during treatment to reduce fatigue; specially trained physiotherapists can treat lymphedema after lymph node removal, reducing unwanted fluid accumulation
cannabismay reduce pain and nausea, and improve appetite and food intake; be aware of side effects and potential for dependence, and use under guidance and prescription of a licensed health care practitioner
astragalus and medicinal mushroomsthese immune-supporting agents may reduce infection risk and raise counts of white blood cells during treatment; some species may contribute to improved survival in the years following diagnosis
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