Conventional cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy) preserve and prolong the lives of many. However, these treatments present challenges for patients such as adverse side effects and lack the holistic elements that a patient may require for remission and survival. Integrating naturopathic treatment strategies (integrative oncology) can improve the overall effectiveness of conventional cancer treatment, help to minimize negative side effects and symptoms, decrease suffering and distress and improve survival and remission. In this issue of Naturopathic connections, we address lifestyle strategies for patients with cancer. Watch for our next blog post, in which we will complete this two-part article with dietary strategies.
The two most fundamental lifestyle- related naturopathic approaches are exercise and stress management.
Exercise is a vital component of any healthy lifestyle and has been well- documented as a cancer prevention strategy. But it has also been found to be of critical importance in life-style based treatment programs for patients who are fighting cancer.
Studies conducted in both the United States and Denmark found that women diagnosed with breast cancer who had a high body mass index (obesity) were significantly correlated to lower overall survival than women with an average to low body mass index. Furthermore, M. Irwin et al., 2008, analyzed 933 women with breast cancer and found that women who did moderate-intensity exercise (a brisk walk 2-3 hours per week) either before or after diagnosis had a 45% lower risk of death compared with women who were inactive both before and after diagnosis. They also found that women that decreased their level of activity when diagnosed had a 4-fold increase in risk of death.
Exercise has also been shown to slow the spread of cancer cells. Regular exercise reduces insulin levels and since cancer thrives on sugar, exercise has been proven to reduce the risk of cancer, slow the spread of cancer cells and help to keep it from returning.
Exercise also improves the circulation of immune cells in your blood. The job of these cells is to neutralize pathogens throughout your body. The better these cells circulate, the more efficient your immune system is at locating and defending against viruses and diseases, including cancer, trying to attack your body.
Increasing evidence is showing that regular exercise can lead to a number of health improvements for cancer patients beyond survival including better aerobic fitness, increased muscular strength, improved quality of life and less fatigue.
While there are many reasons for being physically active during cancer treatment, each person’s exercise program should be based on what is safe, effective, and enjoyable for them. Your exercise plan should take into account any exercise program you already follow, what you can do now, and any physical problems or limits you have.
The word “cancer” alone can trigger a stress response, and for those undergoing cancer treatment, the experience can easily be the most stressful they ever endure. After all, research has shown that roughly half of people with advanced or terminal cancer struggle with mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders.
Elevated and prolonged stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine have been associated with shortened survival in cancer patients. Decreased survival time has also been associated with depression, poor quality of life and social isolation.
A good deal of research has examined the impacts of both mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on cancer treatment. A 2012 Danish review of studies found that mindfulness-based therapies -- which include yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and mental training -- are an effective way to manage depression and anxiety in cancer patients resulting in overall improvements in psychological and physical quality of life.
A 2011 study published in the journal Cancer Nursing also found that the majority of cancer patients who participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy experienced positive effects including increased calm and well-being, better sleep quality, more energy and decreased physical pain.
We can’t forget that exercise is also a form of stress management. Physical activity helps bump up the production of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike also can contribute to this same feeling. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, aid in relaxation, and decrease the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety.
All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body, your life and your illness.
Please note that like most things, you will want to find the lifestyle program that works for you. Not every treatment program works the same way for everyone, and a consultation with your Naturopathic Doctor will be needed.