Mesothelioma patients often need to seek experimental or investigational treatments to help with their cancer symptoms and to attempt to slow the progress of malignant mesothelioma. Although mesothelioma has been identified in patients and diagnosed for a century or more, it remains a very difficult cancer to treat. Much too often, patients are diagnosed when the mesothelioma is in a later stage, or when the mesothelioma is difficult to treat properly. In most mesothelioma cases, the patient cannot go into remission. Although some mesothelioma patients are able to extend their lives and live for a number of years following a mesothelioma diagnosis, there is no definitive cure for mesothelioma in most cases. And for many mesothelioma patients, the prognosis is not good. To be sure, mesothelioma patients often receive a prognosis that gives them only a limited time to live, or they might go through specific treatments and even experimental therapies only to learn that the existing medicines that have been FDA-approved or that are in the clinical trial phase are not working to treat their cancer.
When existing treatments are not working, or when a cancer patient with malignant mesothelioma wants to consider options beyond those that are used by traditional health care providers and in traditional clinical settings, they may turn to alternative therapy. Generally speaking, alternative therapy includes almost any kind of practice designed to treat a disease or to reduce symptoms that are not recognized as a form of treatment by the medical community. Some types of alternative therapies include supplements that you are already familiar with, such as vitamins or herbal teas. Alternative therapies can also include certain forms of alternative medicine, spiritual healing, and other practices, as well. The key thing to know about alternative therapy is that it is used in lieu of traditional medical treatment, or that serves as a complement to existing medical treatments.
Defining Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)
How does the medical community define complementary and alternative medicine? According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, there are “many different areas [that] make up the practice of complementary and alternative medicine,” and “many parts of one field may overlap with the parts of another field.” As Johns Hopkins explains, some aspects of complementary and alternative medicine may be used in traditional or conventional medicine, and CAM practices are extremely common in the United States. Overall, approximately 38 percent of adults use some form of alternative medicine in some capacity, and 12 percent of children do. When a person has malignant mesothelioma, they might turn to complementary and alternative medicine in order to attempt to treat cancer or to relieve symptoms as other traditional or conventional treatments have failed. Complementary and alternative medicine also may be used to help with other symptoms or effects of the malignant mesothelioma, or with the conventional medical treatment, they are receiving. The National Cancer Institute cites the following reasons that a person with cancer might employ complementary and alternative medicine:
- To help cope with the side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain, and fatigue;
- To comfort themselves and ease the worries of cancer treatment and related stress;
- To feel that they are doing something to help with their own care; and/or
- To try to treat or cure their cancer.
When complementary and alternative medicine is used in conjunction with conventional medicine and conventional or traditional treatments, it is usually known as complementary therapy or medicine. When CAM is used in lieu of or in place of conventional medical care or treatment, then it may be described as an alternative therapy.
Terms to Know When Discussing Complementary and Alternative Medicine
The National Cancer Institute provides information about forms of complementary and alternative medicine, or approaches to complementary and alternative medicine, and emphasizes the importance of knowing some key terms that may be used to discuss a patient’s options. The following is some of the language and terminology that is frequently used to describe CAM:
- Alternative medicine: This is a term used to describe a therapy or treatment that is used instead of a standard type of medical treatment that would be used by a practitioner of conventional medicine. Practitioners of alternative medicine may only practice alternative medicine, or they may be licensed to practice conventional medicine in addition to alternative therapy.
- Complementary medicine: Complementary medicine is the term that is used to refer to a non-traditional or non-conventional treatment that is used in addition to the standard or conventional medical treatment.
- Conventional medicine: This is a term that refers to conventional, or traditional, forms of medical care that involve a licensed health care provider. Health care providers with medical doctor (M.D.) or doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) degrees can perform a range of health care services through conventional medicine that may involve assessing, treating, or managing diseases with conventional practices that may include prescription drugs, surgery, or radiation. Other licensed health care providers beyond those with an M.D. or a D.O. can also practice convention medicine, including registered nurses (RNs), nurse practitioners (NPs), physician assistants (PAs), pharmacists, and therapists. Depending upon who you speak with, conventional medicine can also be described with different terms that may include Western medicine, allopathic medicine, biomedicine, mainstream medicine, or orthodox medicine, according to the National Cancer Institute. In some circumstances, licensed health care providers who practice conventional medicine may also practice forms of complementary and alternative medicine.
- Integrative medicine: This term is used to refer to a general approach to a patient’s treatment that brings together conventional medicine with practices of complementary and alternative medicine in a manner that has been proven to be safe for the patient and, in other cases, effective. When a health care provider or a team of healthcare providers take an integrative medicine approach to a patient’s treatment, they are usually focusing on the patient’s various needs which may include physical health in addition to mental and spiritual health.
- Standard medical care: This term is used to refer to a treatment that is generally accepted by experts in the field (i.e., licensed health care providers) as an appropriate treatment for a particular disease or condition. Sometimes the term “standard medical care” is described with other terms that may include “best practice,” “standard of care,” or “standard therapy.”
Forms of Complementary and Alternative Medicine
What are some of the different types of complementary or alternative therapies that you may be able to consider if you have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma? The National Cancer Institute and Johns Hopkins Medicine explain that the various forms of CAM can generally be classified based on a handful of categories. Some of those categories have received more research attention than others, which means that some of the types of complementary or alternative therapy may be known to have (or to be likely to have) health benefits for cancer patients, while others may not yet be proven. The categories that experts generally use to describe the available forms of complementary and alternative medicine include:
- Mind-body therapies: The key elements of mind-body therapies include mental focus, attention to breathing, and focus on body movements in order for a patient to relax both their mind and body in order to ease stress. You likely already know about some of these mind-body therapies, even if you did not realize that they fit into a specific classification of complementary and alternative medicine. Examples of commonly used mind-body therapies include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi, imagery, and creative outlets.
- Biologically based practices: These types of complementary and alternative medicines involve the use of materials or elements that can be found in nature. Like many mind-body therapies, you likely already know about many biologically based practices and might even be using them in your daily life. Common examples include taking vitamins, dietary supplements that may include specific minerals or herbs, botanicals that may include spices like cinnamon or turmeric or plants like cannabis, and special diets.
- Manipulative and body-based practices: These types of complementary and alternative medicine practices involve work on the physical body. These types of CAM practices, too, are approaches that you may already be familiar with but may not have realized were included in the classifications of complementary and alternative medicine. The most common examples include massage therapy, chiropractic therapy, and reflexology.
- Energy healing: This type of CAM approach involves attempts to balance a person’s energy flow and energy fields. Many types of energy healing are not approved by conventional medicine practitioners as treatments, but they are not harmful, either. Examples often include reiki or therapeutic touch.
- Whole medical systems: Whole medical systems are forms of healing that have arisen or been developed in various cultures, typically outside the Western world. Commonly used forms of whole medical systems include ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and naturopathic medicine.
Sometimes you may hear these types of alternative or complementary medicines or therapies described as “natural remedies” or “holistic medicine,” or as “Eastern medicine” (in contrast to Western medicine), or even in some circumstances as a “home remedy.” While individuals using those terms might be referring to some of the potential therapies in the five categories listed above, when you are seeking a specific alternative or complementary medicine following a malignant mesothelioma diagnosis, it is important to use recognized terminology to ensure that you receive the information and care you ultimately need.