By Sarah LaCorte
Debrah Harding, ND, FABNO, is a clinical supervisor at Bastyr University Clinic in San Diego. She has over 20 years of experience in the field of naturopathic medicine with a focus on integrative oncology after practicing as a naturopathic oncology provider at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Zion, Ill. She discusses the strength of integrative oncology, the latest trends in naturopathic medicine for breast cancer patients, and how naturopathic medicine can be incorporated into breast cancer treatment.
Can you give me, in your own words, an overview of naturopathic medicine?
"Naturopathic medicine is the application of natural medicine modalities to strengthen the body's inherent healing potential. Tools often used are therapeutic diet, herbal medicines, homeopathy, exercise, stress reduction techniques, physical manipulations, and hydrotherapy.
You can use all of those things to help with multiple phases of oncology care to offer broad support to a person with cancer. For example, as a preventive strategy, specific diets, herbs and lifestyle interventions, such as exercise and stress management, show benefits for cancer prevention. Many of the modalities can be used strategically alongside oncology treatment to aid with side effect reduction and improved efficacy of treatment. Lastly, naturopathic tools can be used in the post-treatment phase to help prevent cancer recurrence."
What do you think are the main strengths of integrative oncology care in comparison to alternate cancer care?
"Alternative cancer care is the term used to describe an alternative medicine cancer approach instead of conventional care, whereas integrative oncology is the term used to define natural medicine in conjunction with conventional care. A 'both and' approach is what I generally advocate for patients. Conventional care in many situations has higher cure rates with earlier-stage cancers, better monitoring of disease progression and recurrence, and improved overall care throughout the process. It is important not to dismiss standard treatment options at the time of diagnosis, especially in a curable cancer, without considering the consequences of that decision down the road. I have seen the situation, unfortunately many times, where people with curable, early-stage cancers eschew conventional care, only to have progression of disease to a state that is much harder to cure, in any modality. I advocate for use of naturopathic medicine to make conventional treatment more tolerable, with fewer side effects. I also focus on therapies that have evidence showing greater efficacy in conjunction with standard therapies as well. I have seen this overall approach is a much greater benefit for the patient. In integrative care, the patient is staying in the folds of some evidence-based medicine; they are staying in that same fold of monitoring the progression of disease.
What do you view as the latest naturopathic trends for breast cancer patients?
"Some of the latest trends would be use of intermittent fasting and fasting therapies to target metabolic pathways. Another trend is use of herbal medicines with an eye on specific anti-cancer targets. Herbs are great immunomodulators, but how to procedurally target some of that benefit more precisely has been a trend lately, especially with spotlight on immune modulation in cancer treatment.
How do breast cancer patients respond to naturopathic therapies in comparison to the needs of other types of cancer patients?
"In my experience with breast cancer patients, they are very open to using more strategies for self-care. They are very open to wanting to employ naturopathic therapies, whether it is herbs, vitamins, IV therapies, or diet therapies. I see an openness and a strong interest in utilizing naturopathic therapies alongside cancer care."
How do you introduce naturopathic treatments to your breast cancer patients and figure out what treatment would be most beneficial to them?
"We start with a locating of where they are in their cancer journey. For someone who just had a diagnosis from a biopsy and are on the way to some type of surgery and future plan, we would take a look at things to support them in that next step. This would be therapies to provide surgical support, tissue repair, stress and anxiety interventions for this new life-changing situation they've been dealt. Therapies change as the person proceeds in their cancer journey, so after someone has a lumpectomy or mastectomy behind them and they are looking at radiation therapy, then we would look at strategies that would reduce side effects of radiation therapy and increase effectiveness and help them through that stage. The same thing can be said for chemotherapy. Along the way we pinpoint specific lifestyle targets that would benefit each patient. One person may need to focus on stress management, relationship issues, another may need an exercise or diet overhaul.
What future developments do you see for naturopathic therapies for breast cancer patients and in general?
"I advocate that naturopathic medicine ought to be a routine part of oncology care in mainstream oncology institutions across the country. I worked for many years at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, an integrated cancer care hospital. I saw the difference that naturopathic care can make during and after oncology care; the decrease in side effects, the increased mood and resiliency, and improved outcomes. The patients would comment on that all the time – that they wished they had naturopathic care where they initially looked for it but could not find it. I think that the increased willingness of oncology care centers to integrate naturopathic care would be a service to everyone."
What do you think are barriers to naturopathic therapies being more widely available to patients?
"I think in some cases the barriers are a lack of awareness of what naturopathic integrative care can offer. Also, there is a lack of understanding about working within the oncology model to strengthen the overall care that they are giving to patients. I think there is a mindset that naturopathic therapies convince the patient to delay conventional care and that is a false assumption or misunderstanding about naturopathic integrative oncology care.
"Another reason is that institutional staff could potentially be on board, perhaps want to experience the benefits of this type of care and want to bring it to their institutions, but admin or funding or some other logistical step is in the way. Naturopathic licensing could be an issue as licensing is different state to state.
"I think with all these potential obstacles, there are models out there for people and institutions to help overcome the barriers. If people are passionate about a progressive team work approach and desire to bring this type of high-level integrative care to a conventional institution, it can be done."