Positively Radiant: Naturopathic Medicine Approaches to Complement Radiation Therapy

It is my hope that this overall integrated approach to cancer care will not only be successful in terms of my own long term survival and quality of life, but that it also models for patients and doctors alike that complementary care has an essential role to play alongside conventional care.
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Being a naturopathic physician diagnosed with breast cancer, a number of friends and colleagues have wondered why I have chosen to do so much of the conventional care offered. The answer is that it works; the statistics are greatly in my favor. At 54, in the world of cancer care, I am considered young and have been otherwise blessed with pristine health. I knew I could handle the strong treatments offered. I have added naturopathic medicine approaches to my care at each step of the way and written about these approaches before; I would like to do the same here with regard to radiation therapy. Most of the way through my 28 radiation treatments, by summer's end, I should be positively radiant.

Beyond some of the treatments described below, I focus on healthy lifestyle choices across the board to keep my energy and attitude upbeat. It's important to underscore that all naturopathic medicine, like all good medicine, is individualized to the patient at hand. What is good for one patient may not be good for another. Please consult with a naturopathic physician who is board certified in cancer care before trying or recommending any of these described treatments.

To find a naturopathic doctor near you, see
here. For a listing of practitioners board certified in naturopathic oncology, see here. For further information on the training and education of naturopathic doctors see here. For a complete list of states that license NDs, see here.

When seeking advice I was looking for things in four categories: approaches that help make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation, things that could protect nearby cells and tissues, recommendations that address energy level/quality of life and lastly, suggestions for rebuilding after radiation. What follows are things that fit into these various areas.

A few basic things to begin: Strong aerobic exercise directly before my treatment is part of my daily routine. Personally, I walk, ballroom dance or Rollerblade to get my heart rate up and keep it up for a good 45 minutes before each session. I am trying to be well perfused throughout my body. I enjoy an at -home weight training, helpful for the prevention of fatigue . I practice yoga most days, as a general stress reliever and to keep my body flexible and strong. Not surprisingly, yoga has been shown to improve quality of life during and for at least six months after radiation therapy.

I am careful to stay hydrated as much as possible. My goal is to drink half my weight in ounces of water each day; I rarely get to that, but it's good to have a goal! This is to help prevent dryness in the skin along all the other things that good hydration does.

I also keep up with my sleep. Many people told me that the cumulative effect of the radiation would be tough and that I would be tired. I have not been tired. I do not know if I am just stubborn or if everything I am doing has helped to prevent fatigue. I sleep 7-8 hours a night and take a short 30-45 minute nap some days, a typical amount of sleep for me throughout my life.

I continue to use my mental game to the best possible effect through daily mindfulness meditation, positive visualizations and prayer. None of it can hurt, and working those muscles regularly has enabled me to stay calm on the radiation table, to relax through the little bumps along the way. These were each habits I held before I was diagnosed with cancer, I am glad to have these skills to fall back on and use during this time.

I want to protect my skin from breaking down in the area being treated. There are many things to do. Once a week I put a half-cup of bleach in my full bath. Long used in the treatment of eczema, bleach is thought to decrease many of the inflammatory bodies that can contribute to and worsen a radiation burn. A 10-minute soak is plenty, and special care to prevent the drying effect bleach can have should be taken by showering after the bath and using an emollient once towel dried. Having never used bleach before in laundry or other cleaning endeavors, it does feel a bit ironic to use this strong chemical at this point. That said, I enjoy the nice bubble bath effect it has, and it's true, I emerge from my bath smelling like someone's clean laundry!

Topically, I slather the entire area under care with aloe vera gel directly after each daily radiation treatment. Aloe has a long history in the botanical medicine to soothe irritated skin and help in the healing of burns. I also employ a calendula spray topically, applying liberally through the day.

At night time I use Aquaphor to moisten the area in question throughout the hours of sleep. Some naturopath doctors would recommend a calendula and oil-based emollient.

In addition, I spend time each week in a hyperbaric oxygen tank; I rest in a sealed chamber where pressure is greater than the ambient environment. This enhances the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and helps reverse radiation-induced damage. There is also research to support that hyperbaric oxygen sensitizes tumor cells to radiation, therefore helping the treatment be more effective.

The potential list of supplements recommended during radiation is long. It is not possible to take every possible substance that might be useful. There are scores and simply not enough time in the day. In addition, the costs can be prohibitive and for some patients, questions arise about drug/herb/supplement interaction and how polypharmacy with natural substances works. Guidance, direction and being able to follow a patient over the course of radiation therapy are essential. Increasingly, in vitro and in vivo studies designed to test various substances are being conducted; more studies are essential. And of course, some supplements do more than one thing and need to be understood in context. I have listed below just a few, to share some of the substances naturopathic doctors are utilizing for patients undergoing radiation treatment.

Quercitin, a bioflavonoid found in many fruits and onions, has been tested and found to enhance the radiosensitivity of tumor cells. Likewise, berberine, found in a number of plants including Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal) and Berberis aquifolium (Oregon grape) is a bitter-tasting, yellow alkaloid with a detailed history of use in botanical medicine; it has also been shown to help sensitize cancer cells to radiation.

Curcumin, which is derived from tumeric, has both research and clinical experience to show it is protective to the skin.

A non-pill item important to mention is good old familiar broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, which can help enhance radiosensitivity in human tumor cells and should be included in the diet most days.

I am most of the way through my 28 daily radiation treatments and have felt fine throughout. My leash is a bit short, in that I must arrive at 3:15 every weekday to my local hospital for treatment. But other than that, I am back at work in my own clinic part time, I enjoy socializing with friends and working in my garden and am enjoying summertime in New England. It is my hope that this overall integrated approach to cancer care will not only be successful in terms of my own long term survival and quality of life, but that it also models for patients and doctors alike that complementary care has an essential role to play alongside conventional care.

I am indebted to my dear friend and colleague Jacob, for his ongoing guidance, support and sharing of relevant research.

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