Cancer can be a challenging disease to manage, and while the traditional treatment of chemotherapy remains effective, the harsh side effects are difficult for some patients to tolerate.
Alternative therapies are gaining popularity and can be used alone or with chemo to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. By exploring these possibilities with your healthcare team, you can make informed decisions about your treatment and potentially experience even greater benefits.
Do I Really Need Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy, or ‘chemo’, is a type of cancer treatment that uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. While it's one of the most effective cancer treatments available, chemotherapy can also have serious side effects. The extent and severity of these side effects depend on many factors, including the type of chemotherapy drugs used, the dosage, and your individual health, but for some patients, it is not worth the risk.
The treatment is designed to target rapidly dividing cancer cells, which means that it can also affect healthy cells in the body that are rapidly dividing, such as those in the hair, digestive tract, and bone marrow. The damage to normal cells can lead to side effects, including hair loss, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue, and even long-term problems with your heart, lungs, kidneys, and nerves (to mention but a few).
Despite the negatives, the medical community has put a lot of work into improving chemotherapy over the years. Developments in chemotherapy drugs, as well as in their delivery methods, are giving patients better tolerated options today. Chemo has become more tailored to the individual needs of the patient and is highly targeted, which means it’s often better at destroying cancer cells with minimal damage to healthy cells.
The decision to undergo chemotherapy is a complex one and depends on many variables, including the type and stage of cancer, and your medical history.
While chemotherapy is an effective treatment option for many cancer patients, there are situations where chemotherapy may not be the best course of action. Other times you may have already received chemo as your primary treatment before discovering that it was not working effectively, or that your cancer had become resistant to the treatment.
You might choose to decline chemotherapy if the cancer is slow-growing and not causing any symptoms, or if you have other medical conditions that may worsen with chemotherapy. Chemo can also weaken the immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections and other complications, which means that if you are in poor overall health you may not be able to tolerate the treatment.
In cases of advanced cancer, the benefits of chemotherapy could be limited. Some people might choose to focus on managing symptoms and improving quality of life instead of undergoing aggressive treatment. This is something you can discuss with your healthcare team and loved ones in order to make a decision that is right for you.
What Are The Alternatives To Chemotherapy?
The term "alternative" can be confusing when used to describe cancer treatments or therapies. It may refer to non-conventional, complementary therapies that are used alongside conventional treatments, or it might refer to conventional treatments that can be used if a traditional treatment (like chemo) won’t be effective or practical.
Whether or not you decide to have chemotherapy, there are many other cancer treatments that could benefit you. These treatments can be given alongside chemo, or be used on their own - it all depends on what the most effective option would be for your cancer and individual health circumstances.
Conventional Treatment Options:
Conventional cancer treatments are those that are widely accepted and used by healthcare providers to treat cancer, with a backing of extensive scientific evidence.
There are several treatment options that your doctor might recommend if chemotherapy is not suitable, or if multiple treatments would be the most effective course of action for dealing with your cancer.
- Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses the body's immune system to fight cancer. It works by stimulating the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells.
- Targeted Therapy: This type of cancer treatment uses drugs to target specific proteins or genes that help cancer cells grow. Unlike chemotherapy, which can damage healthy cells in addition to cancer cells, targeted therapy only attacks cancer cells.
- Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. It can be used alone or in combination with chemotherapy or surgery.
- Hormone therapy: This therapy is often used for cancers that are hormone-sensitive, such as breast or prostate cancer. It involves blocking or suppressing hormones that can help cancer cells grow.
- Surgery: Surgery is a common treatment for many types of cancer. It involves removing the cancerous tissue from the body. Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, surgery may be used alone or in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
There is a growing interest in alternative cancer treatments, sometimes referred to as complementary, supportive, or integrative therapies, which can include a wide range of approaches, from energy healing to dietary changes to acupuncture. These non-medical treatments can be combined with traditional cancer treatments to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
You may find that healthcare providers are cautious in discussing alternative cancer treatments, as many of them lack scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness and may even be dangerous. Dealing with cancer is tough, and unfortunately, some people try to exploit this by selling products or methods that don't work or even harm you, claiming that these are the 'miracle cure' you've been looking for.
Despite these issues, some complementary treatments are generally safe and may even be beneficial for helping you to cope with cancer or cancer treatment symptoms. As the research and evidence on alternative methods grows, healthcare providers are starting to include them alongside conventional treatments as part of an integrated and holistic approach to dealing with cancer.
Some of the options you might consider as a complementary therapy for your cancer include:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Hypnosis, meditation
- Tai chi
- Music therapy
- Relaxation techniques.
These modalities can assist with several symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment, including pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and stress, mood, sleep difficulties, and often improve overall quality of life as you deal with this difficult disease.
There are many more ways of supporting your mental, physical, and emotional well-being when dealing with cancer, and these should be prioritised as part of your treatment journey. One thing that is very important though, is that you consult with your healthcare team before considering any alternative treatments, as certain health conditions can make these therapies risky instead of beneficial.
Alternative therapies are not typically recommended as a primary treatment as they are unlikely to have undergone the same rigorous testing and evaluation as conventional cancer treatments. Your doctor will also need to make sure that these therapies do not interfere with your conventional cancer treatment.
Is Chemo Always The Best Option?
There are several alternatives to chemotherapy that may be used to manage cancer symptoms and improve quality of life. Immunotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and complementary or alternative therapies are all viable options that may be used alone or in combination with other treatments to achieve the best possible outcome for you.
Bear in mind that while it is possible to manage some types of cancer without chemotherapy, it is not always the best course of action. In some cases, chemotherapy may be the most effective treatment option, and it may be necessary to achieve a cure or long-term remission.
Ultimately, the decision to undergo chemotherapy is a personal one that needs to be made in consultation with your healthcare team, who can help evaluate the risks and benefits of chemotherapy and provide guidance on the best course of action for your unique circumstances.