Integrative Oncology Easing Side Effects for James Patients
Chemotherapy and radiation are two of the most effective ways to treat cancer. These aggressive treatments, however, can cause debilitating side effects—pain, discomfort, nausea and anxiety—sometimes to the point where patients decide to stop or forgo treatments altogether.
But treatments like aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage therapy and others are helping cancer patients with the side effects and improving their overall quality of life.
Jaimee Bible is one of those patients. Bible suffered pain and anxiety during chemotherapy, radiation and brachytherapy used to treat her cervical cancer. She took part in a study offered at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) that offered brachytherapy patients aromatherapy and reflexology.
Bible says aromatherapy and reflexology made getting through the treatments much easier.
The concept is called integrative oncology, where standard cancer treatments are used in conjunction with evidence-based treatments—both conventional and complementary—and it is improving the overall quality of life for patients, says N. Anton Borja, DO, medical director of integrative oncology for the OSUCCC – James.
Borja, who joined the OSUCCC – James in 2018, explains that alternative medicine and integrative medicine are two distinct approaches.
Alternative medicine is an entirely different approach not backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies that includes non-mainstream remedies and used in place of a conventional medicine.
“Many alternative treatments are not supported with scientific evidence. As such, these treatments may not have any therapeutic benefit for patients or could even be dangerous,” says Borja.
Integrative medicine incorporates evidence-based complementary treatments such as acupuncture and medical massage with conventional medicines to provide comprehensive treatment of the disease as well as symptoms they may experience.
A key part of integrative oncology is to bring together evidence-based treatments and standard oncology treatments to maximize cancer care and improve quality of life, Borja says.
Borja, who is professionally trained in traditional Chinese medicine, which incorporates herbal medicine and acupuncture, says the research thus far is encouraging. His medical duality positions him to help cancer patients, and it’s one of the reasons he was recruited by the OSUCCC – James, where he sees patients, teaches and is involved in research projects within different departments.
“Integrative oncology has always been my focus,” he says.
Acupuncture is still considered “a bit on the fringe,” Borja adds. “But in the 20 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen it become more ingrained and grow in the United States.”
In the past, patients might not have sought integrative medicine because they had been dissuaded by doctors or loved ones, he says. But that is changing as more studies are showing there are benefits to combining both.
How receptive are patients to integrative oncology?
“Very,” Borja says. “Studies show that 50 to 80 percent of cancer patients are incorporating integrative treatments and therapies into their overall health plan.”
Data collected so far using integrative modalities, Borja says, indicates that side effects are improved. Both pain and nausea can be decreased. In many cases, this approach lessens the need for taking potentially addictive painkillers and increases the chances of patients continuing treatments.
Whether integrative medicine increases survivorship, Borja says it’s too early to tell.
“Certain pieces we know, such as patients are more likely to continue and complete their treatment because the side effects have been mitigated,” he says. “But what we know for sure is that quality of life is significantly improved.”
When it comes to integrative medicine reducing patients’ reliance on opioids, Borja is hopeful. Using non-pharmacological treatments for pain control is the key, especially in relation to acute and chronic pain.
But it’s tricky, he adds.
“When it comes to the onset and level of pain, it depends,” he says, explaining that painkillers provide more immediate relief, whereas acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation or massage therapy, for example, might take several sessions before patients see an improvement or lessened side effects.
It also depends on whether a person is already taking painkillers, he says. “If patients are willing, then non-pharmacological treatments can be really good options."
“If a patient comes in and says they want to get off the painkillers or they don’t want to become addicted, we steer them toward acupuncture and other integrative treatments,” he says.
Insurance coverage has been another deterrent to seeking non-conventional treatments, but that too is changing.
“In other states, acupuncture and other integrative treatments are regularly covered by insurance. In Ohio, it’s a mix,” Borja says. “While these techniques aren’t always covered, insurance companies cover opioids.”
He says patients who are considering a non-conventional approach in conjunction with standard medicine should seek someone who is trained in integrative medicine and integrative oncology.
“It’s still a pretty fresh concept,” Borja says. “We are trying to bridge the gap at a conventional hospital to help patients find a balance.”
To learn more about integrative oncology at the OSUCCC – James, call 1-800-293-5066.