Ask the expert: Integrative Medicine

Tanya Wells is the Lead Clinician, Oncology Naturopath and Founder at the Melbourne Integrative Oncology Group. She is a qualified naturopath who has been practising for more than 20 years, and has a special interest in the research and development of integrative oncology programs. The Beacon asked Tanya about integrative oncology and the role it can play in supporting breast cancer treatment plans and improving outcomes. 

What is integrative oncology?

Integrative oncology is a relatively new term. It refers to the use of evidence-based complementary medicines and therapies alongside conventional cancer treatments. This is done in a coordinated way, complementing surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, to help reduce side effects, enhance outcomes and support a person’s overall health, wellbeing and quality of life.

The medical model in Australia has the opportunity to be more holistic than it currently is. Integrative Oncology is just another piece in the puzzle for cancer treatment, alongside conventional medicine. Used together in a safe and coordinated way, they have the potential to deliver better outcomes for those undergoing cancer treatment.

Other countries around world include integrative medicine as part of their medical systems. In Germany, for example, you will find art therapists, counsellors, naturopaths, clinical nutritionists and physiotherapists working in the same facilities alongside medical colleagues.

An experienced integrative oncology clinician will develop a structured plan, along with dietary recommendations and evidence-based complementary medicines, highlighting any interactions with treatment and giving clear advice on what to take and not to take.

What are evidence-based complementary medicines and therapies? 

Evidence-based complementary medicines include vitamin and mineral supplements, nutritional medicines and herbal medicines that have been specifically researched for their safety and efficacy.

Complementary therapies include acupuncture, exercise, meditation and mindfulness, and oncology massage. These address the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of health.

How can these types of therapy help during breast cancer treatment?

These therapies can all play a role in helping to managing some of the side effects of breast cancer and its treatments, such as anxiety, fatigue, lack of appetite, constipation and pain. They can also help to promote a sense of peace, comfort and wellbeing.

Acupuncture, for example, is effective in managing treatment induced side effects such as chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, pain, hot flushes, and for boosting immunity.

Exercise, the most researched complementary therapy, offers significant benefits, especially for the prevention of recurrence.

A nutritionist can help you identify and incorporate foods that help the natural healing process and promote cell repair. Depending on the individual, they can also recommend dietary approaches such as fasting, which research shows can help minimise some of the side effects of chemotherapy.

Are there any risks or side effects from complementary therapies?

Like conventional medicine, complementary therapies need to be tailored to the individual’s diagnosis and needs. There is no one size fits all approach.

Complementary medicines and nutritional supplements can have a therapeutic impact, so it is important to obtain guidance regarding the correct administration and dosage. Particular attention needs to be paid to potential interactions with your treatment or other medications you may be on. Always seek advice from a qualified and experienced complementary medicine practitioner.

If someone is interested in exploring these therapies as part of their treatment, who do you suggest they talk to?

Not all complementary therapies are evidence based, so it’s important you discuss any therapies or medicines you may be considering with your treating team to ensure the therapies are not harmful or do not interact negatively with your treatment.

You need to have confidence that the practitioner you choose is following an evidence-based approach. That’s why an experienced Integrative oncology practitioner is invaluable. They can support you and advocate for your wellbeing.

You can access an experienced practitioner even if you live outside of the major cities. For example, the Melbourne Integrative Oncology Group helps people locally, interstate and internationally.

Where can I find out more about complementary therapies?

Make sure you access credible and trusted information. I recommend you watch BCNA’s recent Integrative Health webcast online. You can also check out the related Frequently Asked Questions about dietary and fasting interventions in breast cancer presentations. You can also learn more about Integrative Oncology and the service provided by the Melbourne Integrative Oncology Group by visiting our website at www.miog.com.au. Additionally, you can find out more information on My Journey.

Issue 89
Spring 2021