Cancer support, from a natural medicine perspective, includes supporting the person under medical treatment to better tolerate treatment by minimising side effects and long term toxicities.

Short-term side effects vary according to medical treatment modality but may include constipation and/or diarrhoea or both, poor appetite, foul taste in the mouth, and sore mouth and or mouth ulcers. Blood counts are often lowered increasing fatigue, infection risk and bleeding risk sometimes necessitating transfusion.

Longer term toxicities such as neuropathy (pain, tingling, numbness, loss of sensation) may occur in the fingers, toes or may affect the hearing or other nerve-related functions. Other chemotherapeutics are toxic to the heart, lungs and/or kidneys.

Women may experience medical menopause with symptoms including hot flushes, sweats, anxiety and poor concentration and/or memory.  Men treated with hormonal agents often experience similar symptoms. Virtually every cancer patient experiences fatigue and this is often the longest term side effect.

The good news is that all these symptoms, side-effects and toxicities can be minimised to some extent with natural medicines!

Gut support is of paramount importance during medical treatment for cancer for several reasons. Firstly, poor appetite, a sore mouth and digestive distress all contribute to unhealthy weight loss. Secondly, about 60% of the immune tissue is located around the gut (gut associated lymphoid tissue or GALT). Damage to this area can directly impact immunity both in the short and long term. Thirdly poor digestive function means poor nutrient absorption which further compromises health and well-being.

Simple measures such as probiotics and prebiotics have been shown to decrease distress and aid in gut healing.  In addition probiotics and prebiotics have been demonstrated to support local and systemic immune function. There are also a range of herbal medicines which have gut healing properties.  Using natural fibre formulas are often beneficial for both diarrhoea and constipation.  Treating for the inevitable candida overgrowth is essential as candida or thrush is a big contributor to mouth and gut inflammation.

Supporting blood counts is sometimes quite a challenge but specific white blood cells called lymphocytes and in particular Natural Killer Cells (NKCs) can be supported using a range of medicinal Chinese mushrooms and herbal medicines.  NKCs are cells that kill cancer and viruses so their support is essential throughout medical treatment and for the long term as a cancer prevention approach. Platelets often drop significantly during treatment and this can lead to treatment delay and/or transfusion. A range of herbal medicines can be useful in minimising the degree of platelet drop and for speeding platelet recovery.

The good news is that all these symptoms, side-effects and toxicities can be minimised to some extent with natural medicines!

Neuropathy is one of the most debilitating side effects and long term toxicities, and can be minimised or prevented if actively managed during treatment and can also be gradually reversed post treatment. There are currently numerous Phase III randomised, controlled trials ongoing in the US looking at the efficacy of natural medicines for neuropathy prevention including B vitamins, Vitamin E, lipoic acid, L-carnitine and glutamine.

In addition to these nutrients, a range of herbal medicines are also useful in aiding nerve repair and minimising nerve pain.

In my experience a neuropathy support program incorporating several if not all of these measures can successfully ameliorate or even prevent neuropathy and should be implemented in all patients taking chemotherapeutics known to cause neuropathy.

The symptoms of medical menopause can contribute significantly to low energy, poor sleep and general distress.  Herbal medicines have a long history of use for menopausal symptoms and can be very beneficial.  It is important not to take oestrogenic herbs if dealing with an oestrogen-related cancer however.  Instead one can utilise ‘nervines’ or herbs that support the nervous system to manage symptoms.

In addition to management of side effects and toxicities of medical cancer treatments, natural medicines can also be utilised very effectively in the post treatment phase to restore depleted nutrients and enhance the cancer defence mechanisms.

Fatigue is the number one long-term side effect experienced by most cancer patients post treatment. This is due in part to the toxic load on the gut, liver and lymphatics. A gentle detoxification program with nutrients and herbs can help to restore energy levels.

Adrenal gland support with herbal & nutritional medicines is also very useful as the stress of treatment greatly affects these ‘stress coping hormone’ glands and contributes greatly to physical, mental and emotional fatigue.

It is ALWAYS advisable to seek the advice of a qualified naturopath and/or herbalist experienced in the area of cancer support and if under medical care your doctor’s should be advised of any natural medicines you are taking.