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In the Chemo Room: Integrative Medicine

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I'm in a clinical trial, and the drug has shown some benefit to me so far. But my enrollment in the trial is a result of past chemotherapy treatments losing their effectiveness. Standard treatments no longer control the growth of tumors in my lungs and lymph nodes in my chest cavity.

But even as I take the drug and monitor myself for its effects, I have always been interested in what are called alternative or complimentary treatments for my cancer. They include diet, physical exercise, reduction of stress, spiritual and psychological exercise, dietary supplements and just about anything else someone might suggest to a cancer patient.

The suggestions can be overwhelming, and an oncologist often will poo poo them as unscientific and not worth your bother. But I listened to a 90-minute Colon Cancer Alliance webinar called "Integrative Medicine: Wellness Throughout Treatment and Surviorship" earlier this month and heard something I have wanted to hear ever since I began my own scattershot research of alternatives to chemotherapy.

Mary Hardy, a doctor and medical director of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, finally put an end to across-the-board dismissals of alternatives:

"I like to choose interventions from this arena that have scientific evidence where it is available," Hardy cautioned from her own scientific background.

She added, "The evidence base for what kind of diet, for what kind of supplements, for what kind of effects, is much smaller than it is for the chemotherapy medications that you'll be offered. But there is a body of evidence and it is growing, and when people are making recommendations for you in this area, they should be aware of this evidence, aware of these studies, and use them appropriately."

Hardy went on to share what she knew of the most-talked-about alternatives, first saying: "The best wellness plan is one that is tailored to you."

She suggested finding a knowledgeable coach to help you craft your own response to your disease, and she said to inform your oncologist of what you are doing so he or she can respond as well. Some chemotherapy drugs can be rendered less effective by certain dietary supplements.

Her basic components of a plan were simple:

Optimize your diet.
Exercise regularly.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Practice regular stress management.

Hardy's presentation -- you can listen to the whole show by clicking on the link above and then clicking on "Launch Presentation" -- was actually the second part of the webinar.

Anne Coscarelli, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA, opened the session speaking of the mental and emotional toll a cancer diagnosis takes on a patient, their family and their caregivers, and offering "mindful" techniques for patients to dispel fear and anxiety.

"Colon cancer, like other cancers, comes with a measure of uncertainty," Coscarelli said. "It really can change a person's life both physically, mentally and spiritually." It also can disrupt a patient's physical function, their social network, their sexual and reproductive health, their financial and work status and their spiritual and psychological outlook.

"Stress and anxiety become imprinted on us," Coscarelli said. "They become imprinted on our brain."

She added that fears of the spread or recurrence of the disease can be spiked by news coverage of the latest medical or research developments, by surfing the Internet for more and more information about your disease, and even by anniversary dates: of surgeries or disease-free scans, or other markers in a patient's fight for life.

The webinar, jointly hosted by the UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology and the Colon Cancer Alliance, is one of a series of "Conversations about Colon Cancer" held on the CCA's website. Check it out for more information about living with the disease.