Integrative oncology- or indeed integrative medicine- has received a lot more attention in recent years. As Dr Deng explains in the video below, research into integrative approaches “have exploded” over the past 10-20 years.
I grew up in Switzerland where complementary medicine is enshrined in the constitution. Most people are acutely aware that there isn’t one magic bullet to get rid of cancer. When my granny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she discussed complementary options (that were doable at her age and in her circumstances) with her GP and decided to do regular Iscador (mistletoe) injections. She also deepened her faith and I remember her praying for long times in a fully candle lit room. She lived for a lot longer than was expected.
But what exactly IS Oncology?
In very simple terms, oncology is the study and treatment of tumours. The main three disciplines in modern medicine are medical (e.g. chemotherapy), surgical and radiation oncology. As you might be aware, these disciplines need to be studies for years until they can be given to a patient. This is why the patient takes a pretty passive role during treatment: You’re certainly not going to tell your oncologist that you’d like to get a different type of chemotherapy drug, that surgery has to be performed in a different way or that the strength of your radiotherapy regime is not sufficient! You fully and completely trust your medical professional to take the right decisions because they’re the expert of the treatment given to you.
This might suit some people perfectly fine. They go to the hospital, get their treatment and return home “to their old life”. As best as they can, of course, because all these therapies usually don’t just attack cancer cells, but also your healthy ones.
How does integrative oncology differ?
But then there are other people. I’m one of them. Call me control freak or simply a proactive patient- but I like to have some influence in what’s going on and explore what I can do to play my part. In the fabulous book “The Cancer Revolution“, Patricia Peat from Cancer Options UK sums up nicely what I felt when I embarked on this path after my initial diagnosis:
“In my work it is about making the body whole again, right down to the cellular level. It is about far more than just treatment, supplements, diet and exercise. It is about you, the whole you, the real you, in relation to your life, your environment, your stresses- what depletes you, what nourishes you, what makes you fearful, what makes you joyful.”
And, further down the page, there is another paragraph I equally like: “Integrative medicine is about positive, healthy choices in dealing with cancer. It is about you discovering what made you ill and what makes you well again. It is your journey towards becoming your own healer.”
Different choices for different patients
In short, integrative medicine adds tools to your standard of care (i.e. drugs like chemo- or immunotherapy, surgery, radiation) that supports your body throughout treatment and beyond. Those tools can come from the complementary and alternative field (also called “Complementary and Alternative Medicine”, short for CAM) or also from conventional medicine. The repurposing of drugs is a prime example of this, a service offered by the Care Oncology Clinic in London.
The challenge is develop a protocol that is uniquely you and supports you from whatever point you start. Initially, you might need a lot of help from a practitioner. But as you go along and get to know yourself, your body, mind and how it all connects together, you will find that it becomes easier to go your own path (while still being monitored in a conventional setting, of course).
Usually patients move from one thing to the next depending on what’s going on in their lives- at least that’s how I’ve been doing it for the past 8 years. You might find acupuncture beneficial for a certain while (for instance to deal with side effects during treatment), but then decide you prefer massage. Or regular swimming sessions and yoga. For relaxation, some people find breathing exercises great. Others prefer walking in nature. Or yoga. It depends on your financial circumstances, your fitness levels, time constrains, level of support and many other factors. But rest assured- there’s something for everybody! And you know what? Sometimes, less is more!
Clarity from Dr Gary Deng
But let’s let Dr Gary Deng from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York give you a better overview of what “there is”:
Integrative Oncology Overview: Gary Deng, MD, MPH, Interim Chief, Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NY