Many people who are diagnosed with cancer experience side effects of their treatments that can be debilitating and long-lasting, such as chronic pain, fatigue, and depression. Conventional cancer treatments usually focus on treating the cancer directly. Integrative oncology treats the whole person, incorporating conventional treatments in addition to therapies that support a person’s natural healing ability.
What is Integrative Oncology?
Integrative Oncology is a patient-centered, evidence-informed field of cancer care that utilizes mind and body practices, natural products, and/or lifestyle modifications from different traditions alongside conventional cancer treatments. Integrative oncology aims to optimize health, quality of life, and clinical outcomes across the cancer care continuum, and to empower people to become active participants, before, during, and beyond cancer treatment.
Dr. Santosh Rao, MD, ABOIM is a board-certified Medical Oncologist specializing in genitourinary cancers, and a board-certified Integrative Medicine Provider at University Hospitals in Cleveland, OH. Dr. Rao also serves as the President-Elect for the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO).
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How is Integrative Oncology Different from Alternative Medicine?
Integrative Oncology is not an alternative to traditional treatments and therapies. The goal is for the evidence-based therapies to be complementary and integrative in general. It is the use of these complementary therapies with conventional medicine in a deliberate manner that is personalized, evidence-based, and safe.
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Why is Integrative Oncology Important?
Julie Deleemans, PhD
Lesley has lived with metastatic breast cancer for more than 10 years. She attributes living well to using integrative oncology to relieve the side effects of treatment that she will have for the rest of her life. She finds that therapeutic art, meditation, yoga, and acupuncture support her wellness and brings her soul peace and joy.
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Betsy is a 15-year melanoma and breast cancer survivor. She describes integrative oncology as a researched, evidence-based practice that improves the quality and efficacy of traditional cancer care treatments. Betsy engages in guided mediation, diet and nutrition, exercise, yoga, and acupuncture. Betsy hopes that participating in integrative oncology will give you a sense of empowerment that will help you help yourself through treatment.
Learn more about Betsy: March 2023 NCCS Advocate Spotlight »
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Jodi is a 20-year breast cancer survivor. She explains that cancer treatment saved her life, but it was integrative medicine that helped her rebuild her health. She has participated in acupuncture research and uses mindfulness practice to support her survivorship.
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Desirée is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She shares that integrative oncology has been a major part of her quality care over the past decade. She uses acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapies, massage therapy, and yoga to support her in dealing with the late and long-term side effects of survivorship. Desirée has taken control of her health and ensures she is treated as a whole person.
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What are the Common Risk Factors for Cancer Survivors?
Cancer is a progression that develops in part from host factors, diet and lifestyle factors, and environmental factors. Modifying factors from your diet and lifestyle can reduce that risk. Smoking is the number one modifiable risk factor that contributes to cancer. Alcohol use is second modifiable risk factor. A growing risk factor is having high body mass index and higher fasting plasma glucose.
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Obesity increases a person’s risk of developing cancer. Changes in the body related to obesity include an increase in inflammation, hormones, and insulin and these have direct effects on the development of cancer.
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How Can Integrative Oncology Help Reduce Cancer Risk?
There are many lifestyle recommendations to reduce the risk of cancer or reduce the risk of a recurrence and many are a part of the field of integrative oncology:
- Be at a healthy weight.
- Be physically active.
- Limit consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks.
- Limit consumption of red and processed meats.
- Eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.
- Limit consumption of fast foods and other processed foods.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Do not use supplements for cancer risk reduction.
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Types of Integrative Oncology
Acupuncture – Iris Zhi, MD, PhD
Dr. Zhi is a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, focusing on breast cancer. Her primary research interest is on the use of acupuncture. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through the skin at strategic points on your body. Research has shown that acupuncture is another tool that can be used for pain management in cancer survivors. In the video, Dr. Zhi highlights several other side effects of cancer treatment that acupuncture can help reduce, such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dry mouth
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Mind Body Therapies – Linda E. Carlson, Ph.D., R.Psych, FABMR, FSBM, FMLI
Dr. Carlson is a researcher and psychologist at the University of Calgary. Mind Body Therapies are a range of techniques that utilize psychology practices. It focuses on using your mind and feelings to improve your bodily function. She highlights different options and recommends that the best option for you is the one that works for you.
Learn more about Dr. Carlson »
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Nutrition – Tara Berman, MD, MS
Dr. Berman is a medical oncologist with a Master of Science degree in nutrition. Good nutrition should be practiced during cancer treatment and is important for reducing your risk of cancer. Food is processed in the body the same way as medicine. Your diet affects how medication is absorbed, and both can have an impact on your gut microbiome — the delicate balance of microorganisms in your gastrointestinal tract. She hopes that nutrition will empower you to feel in control of your overall health.
Dr. Berman suggests a few tips for a healthy GI tract:
- Keep your food intake in healthy moderation.
- Avoid processed foods with high sugar content.
- Choose natural foods like vegetables and fruits.
- Focus on lean proteins like fish and chicken.
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Yoga Therapy – Smitha Mallaiah, MSc, C-IAYT
Smitha Mallaiah is a Senior Mind-Body Intervention Specialist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program. Yoga therapy is an evidence-informed practice that uses yogi techniques and practices to address an individual’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Patients tell her that they feel empowered by yoga therapy because they are in charge of their own health.
Learn More About Smitha Mallaiah »
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How do you talk to your care team if they are not familiar with Integrative Oncology?
Cancer survivors can start the conversation about integrative oncology by sharing the published research and guidelines that support each practice. You will be more confident because there is general agreement that Integrative Oncology is a legitimate, evidence-based, peer-reviewed therapy. It is really important to have a dialog to not only educate other providers so that they may understand, but also to just talk. The goal is to develop high-quality care and have it available for those who want it.
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How does Integrative Oncology support traditional therapies?
Integrative Oncology provides support to make traditional therapies more tolerable. It can help patients to get through hormonal therapy or chemotherapy.
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Integrative Oncology Guides
More About Integrative Oncology
Ana Maria Lopez, MD, MPH, MACP
NCCS Board Member Ana María López, MD, MPH, discussed the benefits of integrative oncology and outlined how patient-centered, evidence-based integrative practices can enhance quality of life during, after, and beyond cancer treatment. She explains, “I am very committed to healing body, but I know that the body is connected to the heart is connected to the spirit is connected to the soul and is connected to the people that are around that individual.” Integrative medicine empowers patents to be active in the treatment process and it increases a patient’s quality of life. Dr. Lopez shares, “Every patient leaves feeling better and you can’t argue with the patient’s own experience.”
Learn more about Dr. Lopez »
Ana María López, MD, MPH – Slide Deck »
Integrative Oncology Resource List (PDF) »
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Society for Integrative Oncology
The mission of the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO) is to advance evidence-based, comprehensive, integrative healthcare to improve the lives of people affected by cancer.
SIO has consistently encouraged rigorous scientific evaluation of both pre-clinical and clinical science, while advocating for the transformation of oncology care to integrate evidence-based complementary approaches. The vision of SIO is to have research inform the true integration of complementary modalities into oncology care, so that evidence-based complementary care is accessible and part of standard cancer care for all patients across the cancer continuum
This initiative is supported by an educational grant from Daiichi Sankyo.