Cancer and Alternative Therapies

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I’ve written that people with cancer often benefit from complementary or alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage therapy and yoga. In addition to treating symptoms and reducing stress, pursuing these therapies can give patients some sense of control when their lives seem completely out of control.

I recently asked a group of individuals with cancer about their experiences with alternative modalities and what advice they would have for alternative practitioners just beginning their careers. (It’s interesting to note that nearly everyone in this group had pursued one or more such therapies.)

Many of their suggestions dealt with the need for nurturing and the creation of a healing space. Conventional cancer care focuses nearly exclusively on treatment. Healing is a different and largely unaddressed dimension that people yearn for.

Their favorite alternative practitioners were those who are comfortable with the language of Western medicine as well as their own areas of expertise. Many people diagnosed with cancer know a great deal about their disease and quickly assess if their practitioners are knowledgeable. In particular, most patients want to know how alternative therapies and traditional treatment can work together.

Patients also appreciate it if their practitioners – both conventional and alternative ─ are respective of other approaches. They don’t like it if their physicians are dismissive of alternative modalities, nor do they like it if their alternative practitioners are dismissive of Western medicine.

It’s particularly important for patients and alternative practitioners to have a mutual understanding of what the alternative modalities are intended to achieve. What are the expectations and the boundaries of the practitioner’s involvement?

The primary advice for alternative practitioners is the same advice I give to Western practitioners: cancer patients are people. When you know them as individuals, you provide better care.

And cancer makes people especially vulnerable. They’re scared when first diagnosed and then surprised to realize that their most basic questions often don’t have clear answers. We may not know the cause of a specific cancer or what the outcome will be if treatment is initiated.

As a result, cancer patients tend to develop relationships of trust with their care providers – both Western and alternative. It is a shared journey and the best practitioners help light the path.


Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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