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FAQs About Integrative Oncology

Penn Medicine believes that educated patients are empowered patients. It's important for you to understand the facts about integrative medicine and how you might benefit from integrative therapies during and after traditional cancer treatment.

What is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine is the practice of medicine that focuses on the whole person. It is informed by evidence-based research and combines the expertise of health care professionals with practices and products not considered to be part of conventional medicine. Therapies are usually performed by practitioners outside the conventional system of medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy and by allied health professionals such as physical therapists, psychologists and registered nurses.

As more medical centers and schools begin introducing these therapies into the conventional medical system, the definition will continue to evolve.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to the use of non-conventional therapies that complement conventional medicine.

Types of CAM may include:

While many CAM approaches such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, and stress management may help manage cancer-related symptoms; others such as specific herbal treatments/supplements may interact with cancer treatment in unknown ways.

Who Uses Integrative Medicine and Complementary Therapies?

Based on a recent Penn study, an estimated 66.5% of U.S. cancer survivors have used integrative therapies. Cancer patients and survivors often use integrative therapies to help cope with symptoms of cancer or treatment side effects (e.g. nausea, pain, fatigue). In the process of exploring integrative therapies, cancer patients may feel they have greater control of the illness trajectory and develop newer ways of coping with the distress and uncertainty of illness.

How Should You Select a Provider?

It's important for you to discuss integrative medicine and how to select a provider with your cancer physician. Because integrative medicine is meant to supplement, or integrate non-traditional therapies with conventional therapies, it's important for you to discuss decisions with your doctor. Also, your physician or health care provider may be able to provide a referral for a provider.

As when choosing any health care provider, you should contact practitioners you are considering for basic information.

You may want to ask about:

  • Education, training, licenses, and certifications - You should compare the provider's qualifications with the standards for that profession.
  • Areas of specialization - You should ask practitioners about their experience treating patients with cancer, and their philosophy of care.
  • Research - You may want to discuss studies that support the treatment's use for your condition.
  • Cost - Find out what they charge per session and cancelled appointments costs, and payment options including insurance coverage.
  • Office locations - Are they near public transportation? Do they have parking or elevators?
  • What to expect - Learn what happens during an appointment, and how long it will last to help alleviate any anxiety about the visit.

Will Insurance Cover a Complementary and Alternative Medicine Visit?

If you have health insurance, you should check with your provider about coverage for supplemental therapies. Insurance may pay for all, part, or none of the visits. Also, you should ask practitioners if they participate in a particular insurance plan. You may want to consider using a health spending account to offset some of the cost associated with visiting these practitioners.

Who Can Benefit from Integrative Medicine?

While many complementary approaches such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, and Reiki may help manage cancer-related symptoms, others such as specific herbal treatments and supplements may interact with cancer treatment in unknown ways. You will need to discuss integrating therapies to conventional care with your health care provider.

The most important thing for cancer patients who are undergoing active cancer treatment (e.g. chemotherapy, radiation, surgery) is that the herbs/supplements should not interfere with the efficacy of those treatments.

Many patients who receive complementary therapies report feeling more balanced and rested, experiencing relief from pain and helping manage side effects of conventional therapies.

What About the Natural Cures Listed on the Internet?

It's important for you to be educated about Integrative Medicine and Wellness. There are unsubstantiated claims on the Internet regarding cancer cures. These cures may cause financial hardship for patients and lead to physical harm.

It is vitally important to learn integrative medicine information from credible sources and discuss individual needs with health care providers.

Integrative medicine is about thoughtfully evaluating the information to combine safe and potentially effective complementary and conventional therapies together. You should be educated and empowered, and discuss information you find on the Internet with your doctor.