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Alternative therapies offer pain relief to cancer patients

At the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, one of the oldest cancer treatment centers in the world, complimentary therapies such as hypnosis and Tai Chi are now regularly offered to patients. NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

Along with the standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, patients are routinely being offered alternative or complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage and yoga in major cancer centers around the country, according to a report by NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman on “Nightly News with Brian Williams.” Alternative therapies have become an increasingly mainstream tool for doctors all around the country, especially when used to ease the side effects of treatment.

On Tuesday, Oct. 16., tune in to "NBC Nightly News" to watch part two of Dr. Nancy Snyderman's report on complementary medicine and learn about different therapies for back pain. 

A 2010 University of Pennsylvania study found that 70 percent of comprehensive cancer centers offered information on complementary therapies on their websites, according to study co-author Dr. Jun Mao, an assistant professor and director of integrative care at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“And over half of these centers endorse the use of these therapies in cancer care delivery,” Mao says.

The reason complementary therapies have moved into the mainstream, particularly with regard to cancer care, is that they can help patients deal with pain and treatment side effects, explains Dr. Barrie Cassileth, a pioneer in the field of complementary medicine
who heads up the integrative medicine service at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Read a transcript from Dr. Snyderman's online chat about complementary medicine. 

“Acupuncture does not cure cancer, but it is extremely helpful in a cancer setting because it can control multiple symptoms, some of which are not treatable with mainstream means,” Cassileth told NBC’s chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman.

“It’s not enough to say to the patient, ‘OK, you’re finished with your chemotherapy, your radiation, your surgery and so on. Goodbye, and have a good life.’ The patient is suffering from a wide range of problems.”

Mao’s study found that acupuncture was one of the most commonly mentioned complementary therapies on cancer center websites. 

Diane Miller, breast cancer survivor, and Dr. Barrie Cassileth, Chief of Integrative Medicine Service at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, on what Dr. Cassileth calls "a very evidence-based, rational approach to symptom control."     

“Acupuncture can help alleviate pain and nausea,” Snyderman explains. “The good cancer centers believe that acupuncture is a cornerstone of integrative medicine.”

What’s still not clear – even to the specialists – is exactly how acupuncture works.

“We don’t entirely understand its mechanism,” Mao says. “We do know that acupuncture can help relieve pain by bringing in endogenous opiates, which are like pain medication.”

Other therapies, such as yoga, help to reduce pain by reducing stress, Mao says.

“They enhance centeredness and peace,” he explains. “And that kind of stress reduction can reduce pain. Anxiety can lower a person’s pain threshold. By helping to lower stress and anxiety, it can help with the pain.”

Beyond this, complementary therapies can help foster the mind body connection, Mao says.

That rings true to Snyderman who would like to see more biofeedback being used.

“Biofeedback may be one of those hidden gems that we don't talk enough about,” Snyderman says. “Being able to image a part of your body, harness thought and control things like heart rate and blood pressure and minimize pain is astonishing. I am a huge fan of biofeedback and using that same power to enhance the immune system - a field called psychoneuroimmunology.”

For patients, there’s a side benefit: feeling more in control of their lives.

“Cancer is often unexpected and it takes a lot of control from the individual,” Mao says. “Complementary medicine often helps patients regain some sense of control, and helps them deal with some of the uncertainties.”

That makes sense to Diane Miller, a breast cancer survivor who has been dealing with her diagnosis and treatments for the past few years.

“Finding out what I can do myself is empowering,” Miller says. “And it really does help my symptoms.”