When Erica Zacarias was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she chose integrative oncology care to treat her cancer and her side effects.
“I’ve always liked the idea of integrative medicine, and I’ve done a lot of research on it,” Erica says.
While undergoing chemotherapy at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute, Erica also receives a vitamin C infusion once a week at the Clinic of Natural Medicine.
“For me, it’s important to do what I can to help boost my immune system, so it can help the chemo do its job,” Erica says.
What is integrative oncology care?
An integrative approach to cancer care treats the disease with standard therapies like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, while also utilizing evidence-informed naturopathic therapies to help improve a patient’s quality of life by easing side effects.
“That may mean introducing specific dietary practices using nutritional supplements, like herbal supplements, vitamins, minerals and other substances, to help keep the patient as healthy as possible while they are going through standard treatment. And then also providing the patient with the tools to hopefully prevent recurrence,” says Dr. Michelle Niesley, a naturopathic physician at the Center for Natural Medicine and a fellow of The American Board of Naturopathic Oncology.
Dr. Benjamin Cho, Erica’s medical oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute, says integrating standard oncology treatments along with naturopathic therapies often helps patients find relief from side effects, including pain, fatigue, nausea and tingling in the hands and feet.
“Integrative oncology care is about bringing in other providers to help treat the entire patient, not just their cancer, and through means other than just medications,” says Dr. Cho. “In addition to oncologists and cancer naturopaths, we’ve developed a network of specialty providers including social workers, dietitians, psychologists, acupuncturists and massage therapists to help patients address things like nutrition, reducing pain and stress, and how to get a better night’s sleep.”
Collaboration increases patient safety
It’s estimated that 63 percent of patients take dietary supplements while undergoing cancer treatment. However, 40 percent do not tell their oncologist what they’re taking, which can have dangerous consequences.
By working together and sharing information, physicians and naturopathic providers can reduce a patient’s risk for dangerous interactions.
“For example, there’s an herb called curcumin; it comes from turmeric. It plays really nicely with certain chemotherapies, but if a patient has a change in the type of chemotherapy they are receiving, it may actually interfere,” says Dr. Niesley.
“I can’t keep up with every supplement that’s offered on the Internet,” Dr. Cho explains. “When we work with a cancer naturopath, he or she can tease out what works and what doesn’t.”
“I tell my patients, ‘Your job is to get better and feel healthier, and my job is to help you separate fact from fiction with regards to what you are reading on the Internet or what friends or family members are telling you,'” says Dr. Niesley.
For patients like Erica, this collaboration brings peace of mind.
“Thank goodness integrative medicine is now an option for patients,” she says. “It’s a blessing and I’m really grateful.”