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Complementary Medicine During Cancer: A Prescription for Hope?

DSC_6189 Cancer patients often say that their illness changed their lives in fundamental ways, both for better and for worse. Studies show that even amidst the uncertainty that the disease – and sometimes even with a terminal prognosis -- cancer can help patients find a new sense of purpose, peace, and a richer faith or feeling of spirituality. But what doctors don’t know much about -- yet -- is how the specifics of patients’ treatments impact these feelings, and whether any care that hospitals offer may impact this journey.

A new study from Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, however, is helping point researchers down a new path for one day developing services that might help more patients find that place of spiritual growth and hope amid their cancer experience. 

The research group reported in a 2008 study that more than half of cancer patients surveyed used some type of complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapy, such as herbal supplements, meditation, massage, acupuncture and yoga. They found that cancer survivors who experienced some type unmet need -- physical problems related to their treatment, for example, financial difficulties or troubles with their jobs during treatment -- were more likely to use CAM to help with cancer problems. This time, the researchers analyzed the patients' survey responses for the possibility of a link between their use of CAM techniques and spiritual changes during treatment. They found that those who used some form of CAM were more likely to have felt a “positive change,” and an increase in “spiritual importance” in their lives as a result of their disease. Though it’s not yet clear whether people who are already spiritually oriented are more like to try CAM therapies, or whether CAM usage actually encourages spiritual growth, the researchers believe they’re onto something that could help more patients cope with their disease and the upheaval it brings to their lives.

The new study was led by Jun Mao, a family medicine doctor and certified physician acupuncturist who runs the Abramson Cancer Center’s integrative oncology program and conducts research on CAM issues such as the use of acupuncture to relieve pain caused by cancer drugs. To be clear, no one involved in these studies are suggesting that massage or yoga is akin to chemotherapy. Indeed, some CAM methods, such as certain herbal supplements, may interfere with the efficacy of prescription drugs or cause other dangerous symptoms, so doctors underscore that patients should always speak to their doctors before trying these techniques. Still, patients and medical professionals alike agree that there’s more to living with cancer than the drugs you take to shrink your tumors.

Mao and his team cite previous research showing that spirituality can be a key coping strategy for enjoying and valuing life despite bothersome or painful symptoms and a grim prognosis. And however patients manage to find them, the concepts of “hope” and “purpose” – which more than half of the new study’s CAM users reported experiencing a boost in during their treatment -- are ideas that transcend any particular faith background. They’re just good medicine for everyday life.

Check out Oncolink's recent chat on how to integrate complementary therapies into cancer care -- with wisdom from Dr. Mao and other Penn experts, including a yoga instructor, a registered dietician and a reiki practitioner.

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