Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Established and experimental treatments may slow the progress of the disease and alleviate the discomfort caused by symptoms, but they do not rid the body of the disease entirely. Some individuals will also choose to pursue alternative therapies instead of, or in addition to, established forms of therapy.
After an individual is diagnosed with mesothelioma, she or he has a great deal of information to absorb quickly. Patient advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society, recommend that an individual and his/her family or support system first learn about the disease and then make informed decisions about the type of treatment that is best suited to his or her wishes and needs. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are the most established and common forms of treatment. Experimental therapies include immunotherapy, gene therapy and anti-angiogenic therapy. Alternative therapies include acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary changes, breathing techniques and yoga.
In recent years, there has been greater attention devoted to alternative therapies. The American Cancer Society explains that there are two forms of alternative treatments: “Alternative therapy is treatment that patients undergo instead of traditional treatment, while complementary therapy is used in conjunction with standard treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.”. (In this article, “alternative therapy” will be used as a general term to describe both approaches.)
Alternative therapy is an umbrella term that can describe herbal or medicinal approaches; dietary supplements or restricted diets; or medical treatments based in eastern medicine, such as acupuncture. One of the fundamental principles of alternative therapy is that it treats the whole patient, offering a holistic approach and promoting health across systems within the body. This differs from established therapies, which focus entirely on attacking the cancer.
Because established therapies typically do not cure mesothelioma and sometimes have significant side effects, some individuals choose to instead pursue alternative therapies to focus on reducing the pain and discomfort associated with malignant mesothelioma. Others choose to use complementary therapies to reduce the side effects of standard therapies. It is important to emphasize that one approach is not more correct, or advisable, than another; working with a doctor and a support system, each individual should make the treatment decisions that are best suited to his or her wishes.
Recommendations related to alternative therapies for mesothelioma treatment include general ones designed to reduce stress and improve the body’s overall health. These include consuming fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, eating lean rather than fatty meats, and including antioxidants in the diet. If possible, exercise is also recommended as a way to reduce stress and improve the immune system. Exercise may be difficult, however, due to common mesothelioma symptoms such as shortness of breath. Meditation and a method called biofeedback are recommended as ways to reduce stress, to enhance the effectiveness of treatments, and to improve quality of life.
Massage, and therapeutic touch, have long been used to help relieve pain, to increase relaxation and to improve mood. Many hospital and hospices include massage therapists on their staffs. Additionally, friends and family members can learn certain massage techniques. When mesothelioma is more advanced, those performing massages should be very attuned to avoiding any areas of particular pain or tenderness and should use a gentle touch.
Acupuncture can also be used to help relieve pain and certain symptoms associated with established treatments. Acupuncture has been practiced as a form of Eastern medicine for thousands of years to treat a wide range of diseases and conditions and for general health maintenance. This treatment involves inserting small needles into specific parts of the body and is based on a diagnostic process that differs from the one used in Western medicine. This philosophy of medicine looks at how energy flows through the body and uses needles to help release energy flow to restore balance to the body. One common use of acupuncture in treating cancer is to relieve symptoms associated with chemotherapy, such as nausea. It can also be used to relieve pain associated with mesothelioma.
Another aspect of Eastern medicine is herbal therapy. There are many herbal remedies that are recommended to boost the immune system. For example, astragalus root has been shown to activate immune cells and some believe that it is thus an important aid to the body in fighting cancer. Echinacea, which is now a widely used treatment for the common cold, is also an immune-boosting herb, triggering the production of interferon and, some believe, aiding the body in combating diseases such as cancer.
Other alternative therapies include reflexology (a type of foot massage that is based on acupressure, another form of Eastern medicine); aromatherapy (which involves using oils made from plant and tree extracts in the massage process); and shiatsu (a form of massage which originated in Japan). In some cases, alternative therapies yield drugs that are proven effective in treatment. For example, Taxol, which is a widely used anti-cancer drug, is made from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree.
One critique of alternative therapies is that they are not rigorously tested for either effectiveness or safety. While new drugs are evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no similar approval process for alternative therapies. Thus, much evidence of the effectiveness of alternative therapies is anecdotal. Some advocacy groups also warn patients that using alternative therapies may interfere with or impede the effects of established treatments. To avoid this, it is recommended that individuals actively consult with physicians about all treatment choices, including alternative therapies that may not be directly prescribed by the physician.
Just as each individual’s experiences with cancer are unique, treatment choices and plans are also frequently unique. It is recommended that a patient and his/her family or support system learn as much as they can about the type of mesothelioma diagnosed, the disease progression, the stages of mesothelioma, and available forms of treatment, and take into account a patient’s wishes in making decisions about the type of treatment, or the combination of treatments, to pursue.