What is Integrative Oncology?

Throughout my journey in Europe I have spent my time in medical clinics to shadow German physicians in order to unravel their approach to medicine and therapy when it comes to treating one of the most difficult diseases in our society, Cancer.

This condition can almost occur anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, the human cell grows and divides to form new cells, however, when the cell grows old or becomes damaged; they die and as a result, the body has a system in place to remove them. In all types of cancer, the body’s cells begin to divide without a mechanism to stop them. This exponential growth of continuously dividing cells spreads into surrounding tissue and forms solid tumors. In many ways, the cancer is like a weed in your body that is growing and crowding out healthy cells. The tumour then releases chemical factors, which stimulate the body to make blood vessels to feed these mutated cells fuel, such as oxygen and sugar to continue to thrive. The cancer creates an environment where there is no insulin sugar regulation anymore, which is similar to a house with no doors or windows; essentially the body becomes diabetic and the sugar is continually absorbed to feed the tumor.

Three words that no one ever is prepared to hear are “you have cancer” and it has a lasting impact on the individuals ability to identify with themselves instead of with the disease. This happens every day to thousands of people in the world. In that brief moment, it’s as if the person walked in, went through a transformation and walked out as someone entirely different. Cancer isn’t just strictly speaking a physical condition because even when a person has been treated and remains cancer free for a number of years, the prevailing thought process remains. The cancer may always come back and therefore it is best to stay alert and mindful.  This of course can be stressful, because we produce cancer cells inside of our body ever single day, all it takes is for our immune system to miss one and the cancer transitions into exponential growth. It’s like a thought that scratches at the back of your head, never leaving your side. That’s why it’s important to address the mental and emotional needs of cancer patients, whether it is counseling, meditation, reiki, support groups, etc. Many cancer deaths may be preventable because they result from unhealthy behaviors, whether they are physical, mental or emotional. What the mind does not process, the body will.

One physician gave me an interesting analogy to the cancer environment and how modern vs. alternative therapies treat this disease. Consider the Cancer environment to be analogous to a corrupt city where there is no sanitation, no transport, no police. The criminals govern the city and the poor people living within it are taken advantage of. The conventional therapy would be to send in the Army to remove the gangsters but in the process innocent bystanders get hurt and the likely outcome would be that leaders of the criminal organization would be replaced. The alternative therapy would be to send in social workers, to bring in food, supplies, blankets, shelter and support, however, this would take an extremely long time and it may very well be taken advantage of by the criminals. Neither method seems to be effective but used in conjunction; you run a thin line that may lead to treatment success. In my experience, the best approach is the one that attacks the cancer at several different angles. It undermines the cancer cell’s ability to adapt to its environment and develop resistance. Therefore, the use of chemotherapy in conjunction with targeted supplementation of natural compounds, intravenous Vitamin injections, mistletoe therapy, dietary modifications, and a modification of lifestyle and mental thought processes may have a tremendous impact in treating cancer, mitigating side effects and improving a patient’s quality of life.

Integrative oncology is about understanding the whole of a person, the mind, the body and the spirit, not just the patient’s disease.  Multidisciplinary healthcare teams have capability to thrive in treating cancer, however, there tends to be a lack of communication. Therapies have to work synergistically so that together, they are able to do greater good than on their own. I learned about the growing body of evidence-based research on integrative oncology, and, as a physician, it is important to understand which treatments have evidence-backed research so as to separate them from those that had not been properly or fully studied.

“Integrative oncology combines the discipline of modern science with the wisdom of traditional healing. It is an evolving evidence-based specialty that uses complementary therapies in concert with medical treatment to enhance its efficacy, improve symptom control, alleviate patient distress, and reduce suffering. Many of these therapies are used to improve coping and to help patients adhere to their medical treatment program.”                                

SM Sagar. MD Integrative Oncology in North America. J Soc Integr