Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation may save your life. But they also cause side effects that range from mild (dry mouth) to severe (vomiting). If you’re sick of -- and from -- taking medicine, you might look to natural remedies to ease your symptoms.
These aren’t just herbs and vitamins. They can also include massage, acupuncture (a treatment in which tiny needles prick your skin), and more. Your doctor might call this CAM, which is short for complementary and alternative medicine.
Does it work? Some methods can ease the side effects of cancer treatment. Others could interfere with your treatment. If you think you want to try them, always talk to your doctor first.
Herbs and Other Supplements
Even though vitamins claim to improve health, many cancer doctors (oncologists) say you should avoid most of them while you’re in treatment. St. John’s wort, often used for depression, can cause some anticancer drugs to not work as well as they should. Antioxidant pills like vitamin E, vitamin C, selenium, and beta-carotene can interfere with how well chemotherapy and radiation work.
There are other options. Your doctor can tell you if these are safe -- and smart -- for you to take these:
- Ginger can help you manage nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. But it may also thin your blood, so don’t take any before surgery.
- Zinc may help prevent taste changes, a side effect of radiation, chemotherapy, and some pain medicines.
- Astragalus might ease the side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea and vomiting, if you have colorectal cancer. But it also stops some medicines from working like they should.
- Glutamine could help reduce at least two side effects from treatment: peripheral neuropathy (weakness, numbness, or pain in your hands and feet) and mouth sores and soreness. But we need more studies.
- Ginseng, in high doses, was found in a Mayo Clinic-led study to reduce cancer-related fatigue.
- Guarana, a natural stimulant found in a plant native to the Amazon basin, has also been found to help with chemotherapy-related fatigue, especially in breast cancer patients.
This form of traditional Chinese medicine involves putting very thin needles into your skin to improve your body’s energy flow. Some Westerners believe the needles stimulate your body’s natural pain-killing chemicals. Acupuncture is most often used for pain, but it may also lessen other symptoms associated with cancer treatment, like:
If you want to try it, let your doctor know. They can tell you if it’s a smart move based on your health. They may be able to refer you to an acupuncturist who’s trained to work with people that have cancer.
Other Ways to Get Natural Relief
Cancer treatments can bring on anxiety, stress, pain, nausea, and vomiting. Research shows these drug-free methods may help.
Massage: One study of 1,290 cancer patients found that pain, anxiety, fatigue, and nausea dropped by half among those who got massage.
Hypnosis: A trained practitioner will put you into a state of deep concentration that helps you focus on things other than your symptoms. It may ease anxiety, pain, stress, and even nausea.
Guided imagery: You’ll think about a thing or a place that makes you happy. It can help you relax. One study found it improved the quality of life for women with breast cancer.
Aromatherapy: You heat scent-infused oils to make a room fragrant, add them to your bathwater, or use them in massage. This technique may help ease nausea, pain, and stress.
What Should I Try?
The best way to know if a natural remedy is smart and safe for you is to talk to your health care team. If you plan to do research first, keep these things in mind:
- Unlike medicines, supplements don’t have to be tested to prove they’re safe or they work.
- Check up on their safety, risks, and benefits.
- Look for scientific evidence from reliable, independent sources. Don't rely only on the company that makes the product you want to try.
- Know that “natural” doesn't mean safe.
- What’s the word on the street? Once experts decide a treatment is safe and useful, they start to recommend it.
- Talk to your doctor before starting anything new
How to Talk to Your Doctor
Lots of people skip this part. Don’t. Your doctor can help you avoid pills or practices that may not be good for you. Follow these tips to start the conversation:
- Ask about nondrug ways to ease side effects.
- If they say that something you want to try can cause problems with your cancer treatment, ask for other options.
- Make a complete list of all supplements you take -- even multivitamins. Ask the doctor if any of them could have a bad effect on your treatment. (Some vitamins actually increase the risk of certain cancers like how vitamin e affects prostate cancer)
- Ask them to help you spot products or practices that don’t live up to their claims.