Finding out you or a loved one has colorectal cancer can be overwhelming. While standard treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation remain the cornerstone of cancer care, many patients are exploring supportive therapies to enhance their overall quality of life.
Integrative wellness is a holistic health approach that takes one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being into consideration. Wellness practices may vary, but popular therapies include acupuncture, mindfulness, massage, mental health support, nutrition, yoga, and exercise.
While supportive therapies are not recommended to replace traditional oncology care, they may provide impactful resources to nurture the overall well-being of cancer patients. When considering an integrative wellness approach, informing your medical providers to avoid contraindications and support positive health outcomes is important.
In this article, colorectal cancer patients who use Blue Hope Nation, the Alliance's Facebook support group, volunteered to share how an integrative healthcare approach has impacted their wellness journeys.
Sylvia, stage III colon cancer survivor
Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice that involves inserting needles into specific points on the body, is believed to stimulate natural healing mechanisms and promote overall wellness. Some cancer patients have found it useful in managing pain, nausea, and fatigue.
Over the years, researchers have shown the benefits of acupuncture treatment for cancer patients. A number of cancer centers have even integrated this support into their care regimens as a result.
In 1997, the NIH held a Consensus Conference on Acupuncture to inform the medical community about the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating a variety of conditions. Since then, hundreds of studies have been published exploring the relationship between acupuncture and oncology care.
Research indicates that acupuncture can help with the following:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cancer-related pain
- Hot flashes
- Dry mouth
- Anxiety & mood
- Sleep disturbances
Colorectal cancer patients are opening up about how acupuncture has helped them on their paths to recovery.
Crystal, a stage IV colon cancer patient, has been receiving acupuncture on a bi-weekly basis since she was first diagnosed in October of 2021.
“I started doing acupuncture in between chemo treatments to help with the side effects,” Crystal said. “Not only does it help me to feel better physically, but it also helps on an emotional level by managing my anxiety and improving my sleep.”
Sylvia, a stage III colon cancer survivor, also described similar benefits.
“Seeing an acupuncturist between chemo sessions was so helpful with managing my digestion and nausea,” Sylvia said. “While I used a variety of holistic health supports on my cancer healing journey, I believe acupuncture was one of the most helpful therapies I utilized.”
Fortunately, barriers to receiving acupuncture in oncology care are lessening. Acupuncture needles are now medically recognized and regulated by the FDA, allowing for more flexible options when it comes to insurance and health expense account reimbursements.
Kat, stage IIIb colon cancer survivor
Acupuncture isn’t the only integrative support cancer patients are finding benefit from. Mindfulness can also be particularly beneficial to a person facing a cancer diagnosis. Mindfulness practices encompass a wide range of techniques to encourage living in the present moment and accepting one’s own experience.
Mindfulness techniques can include:
Mindfulness is a skill that takes time to develop, but regular practice can lead to greater emotional regulation and a deeper understanding of one’s thoughts and feelings.
- Mindfulness reducing cancer-related stress
- Decreased cancer-related pain
- Weight management during cancer treatment
- Improved cancer-related sleep disorders
- Improved immune response
Kristine, a stage IV colon cancer survivor, explained how mindfulness impacted her cancer experience.
“It was a shock to receive a cancer diagnosis under the age of 50 when I had no symptoms or family history,” Kristine said. “I quickly found meditation classes, and they were a game changer. I went from being a planner to not being able to plan anything at all. Meditation helped me with calming down, being more present, and not worrying so much about what was going to happen.”
Kat, a stage IIIb colon cancer survivor, described how she and her husband used mindfulness together to get through the difficulty of cancer.
“My husband and I signed up for a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course,” Kat said. “It was really beneficial to take the time to slow down and work toward getting to a healthier mental state together. A cancer diagnosis brings an emotional heaviness and a whirlwind of procedures. Mindfulness is a great way to cope with these challenges and live more presently in each moment.”
Fortunately, mindfulness practices are available to anyone and don’t have to cost money. Mindfulness offers a way to calm the mind and reduce stress, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals facing a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
Michele V, stage IIIa rectal cancer patient
Massage therapy is another integrative support that cancer patients are finding great benefit from. When administered by a licensed and skilled therapist knowledgeable about the needs and limitations of oncology patients, massage can provide stress relief and cancer symptom reduction.
The largest study completed on therapeutic massage for oncology patients found that symptom scores declined by approximately 50% immediately following a massage.
There are many different types of massage, and it can be beneficial for oncology patients to research the various modalities before proceeding with therapy. While massage is generally considered safe for cancer patients, it’s always good to speak with a healthcare provider first and stick to gentler forms of massage completed by a licensed therapist who is trained in oncology care.
Michele B, a stage IIIb colon cancer survivor, reflects on her experience with massage during chemotherapy.
“Finding out I had cancer was horrifying,” Michele B said. “Right before I got diagnosed, I went to my local massage parlor and ended up joining after I found out I had cancer. Chemo whooped my butt. Anything that could go wrong did. But, I’d always schedule a massage after my sessions to get out all the energy and stress of cancer treatment.”
Michele V, an oncology care LPN and stage IIIa rectal cancer patient, described similar benefits.
“I utilized massage with reiki healing and felt that my oncologist was very supportive of these therapies,” Michele V said. “It’s so important to have someone touch you because there’s so much about cancer that changes your body. Having a professional massage therapist nurture my body – scars and all – really helped me accept it again. I was also surprised at how much it helped with relaxation, pain reduction, and neuropathy.”
Mental Health Support
Izzy, stage III colon cancer survivor
Being an oncology care nurse herself, Michele V had some other ideas about how she wanted to incorporate an integrative wellness approach. She describes mental health support as one of the first things she sought out.
“The first thing I did when I was diagnosed with CRC was get on antidepressants and start seeing a therapist,” Michele V said. “Cancer comes with a lot of dark emotions, and it’s better to get that under control to focus your efforts elsewhere. Being able to talk through things with someone who isn’t a friend or family member is so helpful. You can lay everything out and not worry about it causing someone distress. Mental health supports have allowed me to look at things from a different perspective. Rather than thinking, ‘What horrible things am I going to endure?’ I think, ‘How can I turn this into something positive and give something back to others?’”
It is estimated that 30% - 35% of cancer patients experience some kind of psychiatric disorder. When you add those statistics to the emotional stress and dysregulation that arise as the result of a cancer diagnosis, mental health support can prove incredibly impactful in treating an oncology patient’s entire well-being.
Izzy, a stage III colon cancer survivor, opens up about how mental health support impacted her healing process.
“I have bipolar disorder, which really complicated my colorectal cancer diagnosis,” Izzy said. “During treatment, I was fortunate to live in a transitional house where I received an incredible amount of mental health supports through on-site staff members, a psychiatrist, a counselor, and a case manager. I can never begin to describe how much easier things were because of this supportive team. When you’re dealing with cancer, old habits of destruction creep in, and you need someone to help keep you on the right track.”
Multiple studies have shown the benefits of incorporating mental health support with standard oncology care. Some research has even shown that receiving mental health treatment as a cancer patient can improve life expectancy.
Michele B, stage IIIb colon cancer survivor
An integrative healthcare approach considers all aspects of a person’s well-being. In addition to acupuncture, mindfulness, massage, and mental health support, nutrition remains an important component of a holistic wellness plan for oncology patients.
A number of studies have highlighted the role that nutrition can play in preventing and/or causing certain kinds of cancer. Additionally, while further research is needed, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests certain diets may help reduce the incidence of recurrence in oncology patients.
Michele B describes the role nutrition has played in her integrative wellness journey.
“As a part of my holistic health approach, I decided to work with an oncology nutritionist,” Michele B said. “Initially, we were working with some low-level blood panels, but my dietary changes helped me improve them to an acceptable range.”
A lot of information is also being uncovered with regard to calorie restriction and its correlation to cancer reduction. It’s important to note that these kinds of dietary changes should be taken with caution and with the guidance of a licensed medical professional.
Stephanie describes her relationship with nutrition as a stage III rectal cancer survivor.
“I was working with a naturopath, in addition to my conventional treatment team, from the beginning,” Stephanie said. “We aligned on my treatment plan, which began with five rounds of chemo. With advice from my naturopath and research I had done, I did 72-hour water fasts, meaning no food two days before my infusion and 24 hours after infusion. I also fasted each day before my radiation, the second phase of my treatment. There is a ton of peer-reviewed research on this topic, and it made a huge difference for me with my chemo, to which I had virtually no side effects. I was able to maintain a very healthy diet, start a new job, and keep up with my two young boys throughout my treatment. I felt like everyone on my oncology team was super supportive (and curious) of my choices, and I’m really glad I decided to do things this way.”
A balanced and nutritious diet is crucial for anyone, but it becomes even more vital for those undergoing cancer treatment. The Alliance has a wealth of information on nutrition for colorectal cancer patients that may be helpful for anyone experiencing a CRC diagnosis. Consulting a registered dietician who specializes in oncology can help tailor a dietary plan to suit individual needs.
Yoga & Exercise
Stephanie, stage III rectal cancer survivor
Engaging in appropriate exercise, whether it’s walking, swimming, or gentle aerobics, supports cardiovascular health, boosts energy levels, and promotes a sense of well-being. Many cancer patients have found that different types of exercise, particularly the practice of yoga, can greatly enhance their overall physical and mental well-being.
In addition to nutrition, Stephanie opens up about her relationship with exercise as a rectal cancer survivor.
“I’ve always been a pretty active person, so I knew I didn’t want my cancer-healing journey to be any different,” Stephanie said. “I focused a lot on strength-building and taking things one step at a time. I try to give myself grace as I learn new ways to challenge my body.”
Yoga is one form of exercise that can be particularly beneficial to cancer patients because it promotes flexibility, strength, and relaxation.
Kat describes yoga and movement's role in her CRC healing journey.
“In 2009, my father was diagnosed with CRC at age 42,” Kat said. “It took a toll on my family and I, so I started practicing yoga to cope with the ongoing stress of it all. In 2014, I became a certified yoga instructor prior to being diagnosed myself nine years later. I love yoga because it can really be anything you want it to be, and it’s such a restorative practice for your body, mind, and spirit. Finding movement that feels good to you when experiencing a cancer diagnosis is crucial. It can help you to feel like you’re moving forward, and it may help with some of the side effects, as well.”
While more research is needed, some studies show the potential benefit yoga can have on a cancer patient’s overall well-being. As Kat points out, finding movement that feels good to you, whether that’s yoga or some other form of exercise is important.
Other Supportive Therapies & How to Integrate With Your Healthcare Team
Kristine, stage IV colon cancer survivor
While we’ve covered several supportive therapies that assist colorectal cancer patients in their integrative healthcare approaches, it’s important to note that so many unique therapies have not been mentioned.
Some other supportive therapies that may provide relief or promote wellness for cancer patients include (but are not limited to):
- Reiki and energy work
- Sound healing
- Tai chi
- Music and art therapy
- Sleep tracking devices
- Cold and heat therapies
As always, it’s important to do your research before integrating any new therapies. It’s also essential to inform your medical providers of any practices you are considering to ensure your healthcare plan is aligned to your specific needs and abilities.
While it can feel overwhelming to think about all the different support therapies available, focusing on one or two things at a time can be helpful. Over time, it’s possible to continue adding more therapies to your wellness plan, switching therapies, or even stopping them altogether. The important thing is that you work with your care team and take things at your own pace.
Kristine shares how she incorporated supportive therapies into her care plan.
“Since the beginning, I’ve told my doctors everything,” Kristine said. “They seemed to be glad I was doing all this stuff and were very supportive. Because my hospital didn’t offer a lot of support therapies, I joined other programs like Wellness House and Hope Connections. So many free resources are available to cancer patients to take advantage of and try without financial obligation.”
For CRC patients, survivors, and caregivers interested in exploring different resources, Alliance Patient & Family Support Navigators are here to help.
Bringing Awareness to Integrative Healthcare Approaches for CRC Patients
Crystal, stage IV colon cancer patient, (right) and her husband Dan (left)
When navigating a colorectal cancer diagnosis, a comprehensive wellness approach may better address a patient's physical and emotional needs. While integrative wellness therapies should never replace medical treatments, they can serve as valuable tools to manage side effects, promote relaxation, and enhance overall well-being.
Crystal shares her thoughts on an integrative wellness approach.
“Our bodies are made to heal,” Crystal said. “Finding the balance between functional and conventional medicine should really be a part of everyone’s care for best results.”
As with any approach, it’s crucial to consult with your healthcare team before incorporating supportive therapies into your oncology care plan. By combining the best of traditional medicine with integrative wellness practices, patients can strive for a more holistic and balanced approach to their cancer healing journeys.
To speak to an Alliance Patient & Family Support Navigator, call our free Helpline at (877) 422-2030.
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