I have always preferred to use a natural approach to health, something that I’ve increasingly come to believe in with my naturopathic nutrition training. Whilst this is not meant as an exhaustive list of complementary options, I thought some may find it helpful if I shared a number of the things I use to complement the conventional medical treatment I’m having for cancer. I want to be clear that I have huge respect for modern western medicine and have personally not declined any conventional treatment. Whilst I see complementary medicine/ therapies as an important part of my healthcare, they are not an alternative to allopathic medicine for me at this point. I use complementary medicines/ therapies and natural products for two reasons; firstly to support my general physical and mental health, and secondly to help with the side effects of chemotherapy.
General physical health
I focus on having a good diet, regular exercise and quality sleep to support my overall physical health. While this is very important as my body is under a lot of strain from both cancer and chemotherapy, these are things that everyone should consider to live healthily!
- diet: I talk in detail about diet in a previous post here. In summary, I eat a predominantly healthy, unrefined diet with loads of fruit and vegetables. This helps balance my blood sugar levels and energy, and gives me plenty of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Many of these help boost my immune system which I talk about in more detail below
- Exercise: we all know that regular gentle to medium intensity exercise is good for our general health, including supporting a healthy heart and bones, managing excess weight, and keeping us flexible. There is also a lot of research showing that regular exercise is helpful for those undergoing cancer treatment. Exercise also has mental benefits as it releases endorphins which are our mood boosting hormones
- sleep: I need plenty of sleep as chemo makes me very tired but quality sleep isn’t always easy to obtain! Here are my top ‘sleep hygiene’ tips:
- Make sure you wind down properly in the evening. Avoid food and exercise for two hours before you want to sleep and switch off all screens (tv, computer, tablet, phone) an hour before bed
- Use magnesium or Epsom salts in the bath. Magnesium is a relaxant and very important for sleep. You may also want to consider magnesium supplements, but it’s better to get vitamins and minerals through diet where you can (vegetables, especially green leafies, fruit, legumes and nuts and seeds are good sources of magnesium)
- Essential oils like lavender in a bath or massaged into the body can be wonderful. Always mix with a carrier oil (eg coconut oil) first so they don’t hurt the skin as can be very strong
- Herbal teas including chamomile, lavender and valerian can all help relaxation
- There are various other nutritional and herbal supplements that can be very helpful,but I would recommend speaking to a nutritional therapist or herbalist if you need more help with poor sleep
Looking after your mental health should be a priority for everyone, but physical illness is debilitating and makes it more important than ever in my view. I use a number of things to help me:
- Yoga. A practice that gives both a physical and mental benefit, I am a huge fan of yoga and have been for a long time. Don’t worry if you aren’t flexible or fit, start with a very gentle practice like hatha or yin yoga, and of course you don’t need to go to a class, there are loads of amazing resources online if you’d rather practice at home. And for anyone who finds yoga boring, try something more fast paced such as ashtanga to start and work your way to the more restorative classes.
- Counselling. I asked to be referred to a counsellor very soon after I was diagnosed. I knew I needed a safe place to talk openly and get my head around what was going on. We spent time discussing everything from my fears around treatment and the future, to coping techniques (like mindfulness), and thinking of short term goals for me to have something positive to focus on outside of cancer. I found it all immensely helpful. I think there is sadly still rather a stigma attached to having counselling, so I want to be very open about how important a part of my healthcare it is. I’d encourage anyone facing any challenges to consider some form of therapy, whether that be counselling, art or music therapy or specific therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Emotional Freedom Technique.
- meditation and mindfulness. I use an app called Headspace for guided mindfulness. It gives me a bit of dedicated quiet time and it’s taught me some techniques to slow my mind and my thinking. They have a specific course on coping with cancer too. Meditation is not all humming with your legs crossed! It’s about learning to be present in the moment and appreciate the good things in your life.
- Physical therapies such as massage, reiki and reflexology. Personally I use massage therapy, partly to help recovery from the back surgery I had, but also as an important relaxation tool.
Chemotherapy side effects
I am given steroids and anti sickness drugs to help with the side effects of chemo, but I take the minimum I can get away with and use a variety of natural products to help too.
This is the biggest side effect that I suffer from. Chemo makes me so tired and it’s horrible exhaustion for a few days, not just feeling a bit sleepy. My legs can feel like lead; climbing three flights of stairs is hard, and I often fall asleep if I sit down for a bit. There isn’t a huge amount I can do other than INVEST IN REST, and follow my general health tips of good diet, gentle exercise as soon as I feel up to it, and plenty of sleep.
One of the major side effects of chemotherapy is the impact on the immune system- it bashes it hard! I pick up bugs so easily (having a toddler doesn’t help!) and I have to keep my white blood cells high enough to be able to have chemo. This is what I use daily alongside a healthy diet:
- a variety of supplements including a quality multi vitamin, vitamin D which is essential for the immune system but which we mostly make from the sun so many of us are low in over the winter in particular, and mushrooms which contain beta glucans, powerful immune modulating compounds
- A Far Infrared Sauna blanket to support detoxification. It’s also incredibly relaxing and lovely to crawl into on a cold day!
- Body brushing and frankincense oil rubbed over my liver area to also help support detoxification
Another very common side effect of chemotherapy. I eat small and regular meals, avoiding heavy and fatty foods. I’ve found anti sickness pressure wrist bands really helpful, especially at night. Ginger is a well know anti emetic (anti sickness properties), and I do like to eat little pieces of stem ginger, and sprinkle ground ginger on my breakfast. I also make ginger tea by adding a piece of fresh ginger and a slice of lemon to hot water- personally I prefer this to ginger teabags. I was also given some queasy pops which are good to suck on if I’m feeling a bit yuk!
If you do suffer from vomiting, it’s a good idea to brush your teeth immediately afterwards with bicarbonate of soda to protect them from the stomach acid.
Loss of appetite
This was a horrible one for me when I was on the triple drug regime, but I’m not so bad now I’m on two drugs. It has been a completely new experience for me to physically not want to eat. When I lose my appetite food could be cardboard, it just has no appeal and I have to really make myself eat, although actually, when I do, I often manage more than I think I will. My top tip is to know your go to foods. I make sure I have stuff ready to eat on my chemo days so I don’t have to think about what I want. Jacket potatoes with pesto are one of my go to’s, although stronger flavours also work in some cases, like pure unsweetened cranberry juice (which also has a number of health benefits being high in antioxidants and phytonutrients) with sparkling water to drink.
I have largely kept these at bay by using a homeopathic mouthwash, Traumeel S drops, twice a day every day. The couple of times I have had ulcers, I’ve found chamomile tea very soothing, as well as using Gel Claire, a prescription mouth rinse. Make sure you use a toothpaste that is free from sodium lauryl sulfate which can aggrevate. I use sensodyne sensitive toothpaste in the morning and DentalCidin in the evening, which is natural and helps break down bacterial biofilms.
Oral thrush is characterised by a coating on the tongue that can look a little like cottage cheese. You’ll also often have a nasty taste. Candida bacteria is found in small amounts naturally in the gut which doesn’t cause a problem, but a lowered immune system can enable an overgrowth which is unpleasant. It grows in warm and wet areas, so the mouth, vagina and gut are most common. You can help control and remove a Candida overgrowth with diet to a certain extent- avoid sugar and anything mouldy/ fungal which the bacteria will feed on. However, when your immune system is low, diet alone may not be enough. Whilst there are effective drugs available, they do have side effects, and herbs can be a very effective alternative. I had it briefly and used a herbal mouthwash I had prescribed by a herbal medicine doctor that it cleared it brilliantly. You can also try pau d’arco tea (which also has interesting anti cancer properties), or oregano (fresh herbs or oil but be very careful with the latter as it’s very strong!)
I’ve been very lucky here and I put it down to my diet and supplements. You’re advised to avoid anything bacterial on chemo (think preganacy diet- no pâté, mouldy foods etc) which means avoiding the probiotic foods I love (kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut), and probiotic supplements. Instead I use a non bacterial probiotic, Restore which has been brilliant. The only times I’ve suffered a dodgy gut on chemo is when I’ve not been taking it.
If you suffer from constipation- a side effect of many of the anti sickness drugs, try prunes in juice, lots of veg, kiwis and ground flaxseed. Also Vera can also help and is soothing if you suffer heartburn too.
A few of the chemo drugs cause peripheral neuropathy which is damage to the nerves, most commonly in fingers, toes, lips and nose. It can feel like very sharp pins and needles, numbness and/or spasms and is generally significantly worse when cold. I got the pins and needles in fingers and toes, an uncomfortably numb nose and spasms in my lips when cold. I was lucky to avoid anything worse and they were fine when warm. I’m now off the drug (oxilaplatin) that causes this, as being on it for too long can cause permanent damage. However I also have the issue of nerve damage to my hands from the spinal tumour. I take a B vitamin complex (this is widely supported by scientific research to help with nerve regeneration), and a mushroom supplement called lion’s mane (if you google an image of it you’ll see why it’s called this!) which has shown fascinating support for nerve regeneration in conditions like MS.
Sore and delicate skin is a common side effect. Make sure you use natural products and pure vitamin E oil works wonders to heal skin- I used it daily on my surgery scar for a couple of months and it’s healed incredibly well.
Sadly I don’t have a solution to this. I lost about 50% of my hair (I wasn’t able to use a cold cap with my chemo drugs) on FOLFOXIRI although it’s been growing back since I’ve been on FOLFIRI. I use a very natural shampoo with biotin to encourage regrowth and Aveda’s invati advanced thickening products. I only wash it a couple of times a week, blow drying a minimal amount on a cool setting, and not brushing any more than necessary- anything to limit stress and damage to the hair.
If you have any good natural remedies for side effects you’ve had then do comment below, I’d love to hear them.