Between 70 percent and 90 percent of people with lymphoma use natural treatments that are not typical of mainstream medical care. These treatment options most often include massage and relaxation techniques — but they may also include special diets, herbs, and probiotics. Natural therapies that are used alongside mainstream treatments are called complementary therapies. When these treatments are used in place of conventional treatments, they are called alternative therapies. Integrative health is a branch of medicine in which doctors use complementary therapies and traditional approaches together.
Complementary therapies don’t treat cancer but can help relieve symptoms. They can also improve a person’s well-being.
Talk to your doctor before starting any new therapy, including vitamins, dietary supplements, or herbs. “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “safe.” Some natural treatments may worsen symptoms. Additionally, some herbs and natural products can interact with lymphoma treatments, making them less effective. Always tell your health care team about any supplements, vitamins, or other products you are taking.
During your cancer treatment, your doctor will likely prescribe several medications that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These medications are normally used to kill cancer cells or slow down cancer from growing and spreading. The FDA only approves cancer treatments after many laboratory studies and clinical trials show that a treatment is effective (it works to kill cancer) and safe (the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks).
While taking cancer-fighting medications, you may also receive other treatments meant to relieve lymphoma symptoms or reduce treatment side effects. These other medications may be prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, or natural or herbal supplements. These therapies may help a person feel more comfortable and improve quality of life. However, it is important to remember that they won’t cure or treat lymphoma. Only therapies approved by the FDA to treat lymphoma are proven to fight cancer.
The FDA classifies natural supplements, vitamins, and herbs as “food.” This means that these products are not regulated in the same way that drugs are. The FDA does not check whether these products are safe or effective before they are sold. Most manufacturers of natural products don’t perform large studies to examine their effects, so be cautious when trying natural herbs and supplements.
There are a few different categories of complementary and alternative medicine. Some treatments may fall into multiple categories. In general, the categories include:
Some complementary or alternative treatments have been studied and have been found to work well to treat symptoms and side effects. Others may not have any effect. Some therapies may even be harmful.
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine. Its goal is to balance different forms of energy within the body. During acupuncture, a practitioner inserts thin needles at specific points within the body.
Some research has found that acupuncture can help reduce cancer treatment-related side effects. It may also help with pain, fatigue, and other cancer symptoms, but studies into these effects often find mixed results.
Some people with lymphoma should avoid this treatment. People with very weak immune systems may not be able to fight off any germs that may get into the body during acupuncture. This technique may also cause problems for people with weakened bones due to advanced lymphoma that has spread to the bone marrow.
Some members of MyLymphomaTeam have found acupuncture to be effective. “Aching legs are my biggest problem since Rituxan (rituximab),” one member said. “Acupuncture has helped me.”
Antioxidants are molecules that help fight oxidative stress within cells. Oxidative stress damages cells. Antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene, as well as supplements such as echinacea, ginkgo biloba, and ginseng.
Although antioxidants have some beneficial effects on the body, they may do more harm than good for people with cancer. Cancer treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy often work by increasing oxidative stress within cancer cells. Once the cancer cells become too damaged, they die. Antioxidants may interfere with this process, stopping cancer cells from dying. Some studies have found that antioxidants may lead to worse outcomes for people with cancer.
Around half of all people with lymphoma take some sort of herbal supplement. There are many supplements available that claim to help treat cancer side effects. Many of these supplements have not been thoroughly tested. However, some herbs have been found to help.
One of the most studied supplements in people with cancer is mistletoe extract. Many European clinical trials have found that mistletoe extract can help improve quality of life by reducing treatment side effects and improving mental health. Mistletoe extract can lead to mild side effects (soreness and inflammation at injection sites, headache, fever, and chills) but doesn’t usually cause any major health problems when taken at moderate doses.
Melatonin is a hormone naturally made by the body. As a supplement, it is thought to help people sleep. Many people with lymphoma experience sleeping problems, so melatonin may be a way to treat this symptom.
Clinical trials have often shown that when people with cancer take melatonin, they sleep better, have less fatigue, and experience fewer symptoms of depression. “Melatonin and Benadryl help me,” said one MyLymphomaTeam member. “It is so miserable when you can’t sleep.”
Some studies have also found that people taking melatonin are better protected from treatment-related damage. Talk to your doctor before taking melatonin because it can interact with several other types of medications.
Some people believe that laetrile, a substance that comes from fruit pits and other plants, has anticancer properties. However, studies have not shown that laetrile can help kill cancer, and laetrile can sometimes lead to cyanide poisoning.
Some natural therapies can prevent blood from clotting. This may be a problem for people who are undergoing surgery, have low platelet levels, or are taking drugs like aspirin that also thin the blood. If you have bleeding issues, talk to your doctor before taking vitamin E, garlic, feverfew, ginkgo biloba, or omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, antioxidants and herbs like St. John’s wort may interact with chemotherapy drugs and make them less effective.
During hypnosis, a person is guided into a state of extreme relaxation. During this process, a hypnotherapist can help the person with cancer change the way they perceive a symptom.
Researchers have conducted many studies looking at the effects of hypnosis in people with cancer. They have found that hypnosis can reduce symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and hot flashes. Hypnosis may also relieve treatment-related side effects including nausea and vomiting. Finally, hypnosis may boost mood and help people deal with anxiety and depression.
Massage involves pressing, rolling, or kneading the muscles and soft tissues. There are several types of massage. People with cancer most often use aromatherapy, acupressure, reflexology, and Swedish massage.
Studies on massage for people with cancer haven’t always shown consistent results. However, there is some scientific evidence that massage therapy may help people with cancer better deal with physical and mental health symptoms. Research on people with other health conditions has found that massage can lower levels of anxiety and depression and help with pain and high blood pressure.
Massage helps some MyLymphomaTeam members. One member reported, “I developed chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, and I have been doing everything I can think of to improve it. Today, I noticed that I am walking with a normal stride, and I think that is because I have been doing deep water aerobics four times a week and getting a weekly massage on my feet and legs.”
Talk to your doctor to learn more about which types of massage therapy may be effective and safe for your own needs. Deep tissue massage may cause problems for people with lymphoma that has spread to the bone or for people with weakened bones due to cancer treatment. It can also be unsafe for people with bleeding disorders. It’s a good idea to receive massage therapy from a licensed massage therapist who specializes in treating people with cancer.
Marijuana or cannabis is a plant that is used by many people with cancer. In the United States, federal law prohibits possessing marijuana. However, the majority of states have legalized marijuana for medical use.
Although many people view marijuana as a complementary therapy, the FDA has approved a couple of drugs made from cannabinoid molecules that come from the marijuana plant. These drugs, Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone), are approved to treat nausea and vomiting for people undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
Marijuana can also help with treating pain and anxiety and boosting appetite. Some people also claim that medical marijuana, cannabis oil, or cannabidiol (also called CBD) can treat cancer. So far, studies have not shown that this is true.
Many MyLymphomaTeam members have tried medical marijuana or other cannabis products. “I ordered CBD oil and it helps with the pain,” wrote one member. Another mentioned, “I use medical marijuana to sleep. Works great.”
Meditation is both psychological and physical therapy. During meditation, the mind becomes focused and the body relaxes. There are many types of meditation. Guided imagery and mindfulness techniques fall under the meditation umbrella.
Guided imagery is a mind-body technique in which images are used to encourage a particular result. A person may visualize certain images or listen to a guide. For example, someone may picture their body fighting against cancer cells.
Guided imagery may improve quality of life while improving symptoms such as tiredness, nausea, and anxiety. One scientific review article found that three out of five studies showed that guided imagery could reduce pain for people with cancer.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is another meditation technique in which a person practices being present within the current moment. MBSR can improve many aspects of physical and mental health for people with chronic illnesses. MBSR can improve the quality of life, sleep, mood, and stress levels of people with cancer.
Probiotics are “good” bacteria that may boost health by fighting off “bad” bacteria. They can help support a healthy digestive system and in other types of cancer, they may reduce treatment side effects.
Unfortunately, probiotics may not be a good choice for people with lymphoma. This therapy may be harmful to people with immune system problems or people undergoing treatments that suppress the immune system. In one case, a person with mantle cell lymphoma developed a severe infection after undergoing a stem cell transplant and eating probiotic-enriched yogurt. Talk to your oncologist before trying probiotics.
Tai chi and qigong are traditional Chinese practices. Both involve meditation, breathing exercises, and physical movement. Tai chi and qigong encourage connection between the body, mind, and soul to allow life energy to flow freely throughout the body.
Studies have found that tai chi and qigong can improve many aspects of physical health for all people. Within studies looking at people with cancer, many show smaller effects or contradictory findings. However, there is some evidence that tai chi and qigong can improve fatigue, immune system function, stress levels, swelling, and quality of life for people with cancer.
Around 85 percent of people with lymphoma take some sort of vitamin or mineral supplements. These can help support health because many people with cancer experience malnutrition (don’t get enough vitamins or minerals).
In particular, vitamin D is important. People with lymphoma who have low levels of vitamin D have worse outcomes — they are more at risk for relapse and early death. It is not yet clear whether taking vitamin D supplements can help improve outcomes nor what dose of vitamin D may be necessary. Clinical trials are currently studying these questions in people with lymphoma. Ask your doctor whether taking a vitamin D supplement is a good idea.
Don’t take more than the recommended dose of vitamins. Ask your doctor if you’re not sure what dose to take. Although some people claim that high doses of vitamins can help treat cancer, there’s little evidence that this strategy works. High-dose vitamins can lead to additional problems like digestive symptoms, kidney stones, nerve damage, or severe liver disease.
Yoga combines physical movement, breathing exercises, and meditation. There is good evidence that yoga can help people with cancer improve their mental health. Yoga can help fight anxiety, depression, and stress, and improve feelings of well-being.
Yoga may also have other beneficial effects. Some studies have found that yoga improves sleep, pain, and lymphedema (swelling), but other studies have not always seen the same results. More research is needed in this area.
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