When there is no evidence of disease, when your cancer is essentially beaten, it is a time for a measure of celebration, but it is also a time for brand new questions: Will I be able to get back to my old life? What can I do to prevent my cancer from returning? What comes next?
We want to answer a few of these key questions in this article.
Patients who are cancer-free are placed on survivorship plans and go from having multiple appointments per week to once every few months. The main goal of these appointments is usually to monitor for any signs of cancer recurrence. However, with so much attention being focused on what could be (will cancer come back), less attention is sometimes paid to the current status. Cancer survivors are often left dealing with long-term physical, mental and emotional side effects of cancer treatment.
There’s a big difference between simply surviving and thriving after cancer. Naturopathic medicine has several ways to help individuals to thrive, and one of the ways we do this is by never losing sight of what a person is actively going through, right now. Naturopathic oncologists can help to treat the lingering side-effects of oncological treatment and help to reduce the chances of cancer reoccurring.
Conventional oncology treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy all come with the risk of long-term side effects. Surgery can lead to scar tissue and adhesion formation. It can also lead to dysfunction, depending on what is removed. For example, lymphedema if lymph nodes are removed and impotency and incontinence after prostatectomy. What follows is a brief rundown of some of the side effects a person who is now cancer-free may be living with from their earlier treatment:
Radiation can lead to burns, inflammation, scarring of tissue, suppression of the bone marrow and depressed immune function.
Chemotherapy is often the most feared of all oncology treatments because of the host of side effects that could result, depending on the agent used. This can include side effects such as neuropathy, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, anemia and permanent damage to organ systems.
Hormone deprivation therapy is another common treatment in both sexes and can lead to fatigue, hot flashes, joint pain, reduced bone density and more.
Naturopathic oncologists have a plethora of treatments that may help to prevent, reduce or reverse some of these side effects so that survivors do not have to live with these symptoms long-term.
Assessment and Surveillance
Routinely looking at tumor markers in the bloodstream and looking for evidence of cancer on imaging are essential components of any survivorship plan. However, these only offer a glimpse of what is occurring in the body and many times these methods can only detect cancer once it has recurred. Naturopathic oncologists have access to numerous specialty lab tests that can look into many aspects of health. We strongly emphasize laboratory assessment. This is an area where conventional medicine is lacking, but where naturopathic medicine is especially adept.
For instance, a naturopathic oncologist can search for circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream, detect nutrient deficiencies and examine how hormones are metabolized in the body. By looking at an individual’s physiology and cellular microenvironment, they can recommend making changes that can impede cancer from recurring. They can also recommend therapies that alter an individual’s physiology, making the body an inhospitable place for cancer to survive.
Prevention of Recurrence
Naturopathic oncologists have a wide array of tools at their disposal that may help to prevent cancer recurrence. These tools range in their level of invasiveness and may include IV therapies, supplements, pharmaceuticals and more. However, some of the most beneficial tools to prevent cancer recurrence are lifestyle modifications. By modifying a lifestyle, an individual can actively engage in the healing process and make changes that may prevent cancer recurrence.
Some modifiable lifestyle factors include diet, exercise, sleep, stress, support and exposure to environmental toxins.
Diet is an important factor when it comes to preventing cancer recurrence and is something over which most people have direct control. Obesity, which is also impacted by diet, has been linked to cancer recurrence. Additionally, our diets can affect our hormone levels, inflammation levels, immune function and increase circulating growth factors that may aid cancer growth.
Like diet, exercise is also an important factor in cancer recurrence. Exercise has been shown to reduce cancer recurrence because of its myriad of effects such as reducing obesity, reducing inflammation and improving immune function.
Other lifestyle factors that can contribute to cancer recurrence are sleep, stress and support. Lack of sleep, lack of social connections or a support system and increased stress have negative systemic effects on the body, which can increase the risk of cancer recurring.
One often-overlooked factor is exposure to environmental toxicants. We may underestimate the effect that our day-to-day exposure to toxicants can have on our body, but research is uncovering that even these routine exposures may affect cancer development as well as recurrence.
It is hard to quantify the overall effect that these lifestyle factors have on the body, but their effects are cumulative, and they can easily combine to impact several aspects of our health. Therefore, it is important to assess all of these aspects of health as part of a survivorship plan.
Naturopathic oncologists are uniquely positioned to be integrated into an individual’s survivorship care team as they bring novel approaches to side-effect management, assessment, surveillance and prevention of cancer recurrence. FBN
By Dan Rubin
Dan Rubin, ND, FABNO, is founding president of the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians. He is the co-founder of Aspen Integrative Medical Center in Flagstaff and medical director of Naturopathic Specialists, LLC, in Scottsdale.
For additional information or to schedule an appointment with a member of the oncology team at Aspen Integrative Medical Center, LLC, visit our website at aspenmedcenter.com or call 928-213-5828. Aspen Integrative Medical Center, LLC, is located at 323 N Leroux St Suite B, Flagstaff, AZ 86001.