Medical professionals are trying new therapies in an effort to reduce cancer treatment side effects such as lack of appetite and nerve problems.
Chemotherapy is often the best weapon against cancer.
But chemo comes at a cost, with common side effects that include fatigue, hair loss, nausea, appetite changes, and nerve and muscle problems.
There’s also “chemo brain” — a loss of concentration and focus.
Each can represent a barrier to effective treatment.
“Patients will have better survival if they are able to complete the chemotherapy regimens that have been studied and shown to be effective,” Dr. Roshni Rao, chief of the breast surgery program at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, told Healthline.
“When patients are unable to tolerate the treatments advised, it can increase the risk of the cancer returning or spreading.”
Lack of appetite is a common side effect of chemo, one that can prevent cancer patients from providing their body with the fuel it needs to fight the disease.
“The prevailing symptom described by patients undergoing chemotherapy is a persistent metallic flavor or aftertaste, with or without food intake,” Susan Duncan, a Virginia Tech cancer researcher, told Healthline. “This can last for hours, weeks, or even months after the completion of treatments.”
To overcome taste- and smell-related abnormalities (TSA) caused by chemotherapy, Duncan and Aili Wang, a research associate in Virginia Tech’s food science and technology department, turned to lactoferrin, a protein found in saliva and milk.
Combined with drugs proven effective in preventing nausea, lactoferrin can improve weight loss, depression, and diminished nutritional intake, the researchers concluded.
“Our research shows that daily lactoferrin supplementation elicits changes in the salivary protein profiles in cancer patients — changes that may be influential in helping to protect taste buds and odor perception,” said Duncan, whose study was recently published in the journal Food & Function.
“By suggesting lactoferrin as a dietary supplement, we can reduce TSA for many patients, restoring their ability to enjoy foods during a time in which nutrition can play a key role in their recovery.”
Drugs and medication aren’t the whole answer to relieving the side effects of chemotherapy.
The issue of metallic taste, for example, has some potential antidotes.
“Usually I recommend hard candy, gum, oral hydration, and encouraging patients to eat what they like rather than adhering to any particular diet, particularly if it is especially restrictive or if it requires excessive intake of something,” Dr. Jules Cohen, a medical oncologist at the Stony Brook University Cancer Center in New York and a clinical associate professor of medicine at Stony Brook Medicine, told Healthline.
Complementary treatments such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, and reflexology can also help reduce both pain and anxiety resulting from cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, according to researchers at The Ohio State University.
A study published in May in the journal Oncology Nurse Advisor concluded that patients who had undergone brachytherapy — a treatment that delivers a targeted dose of radiation to tumors inside the body — experienced a 60 percent reduction in pain and a 20 percent reduction in anxiety when they received essential oil aromatherapy and 30 minutes of foot reflexology prior to their treatment sessions.
“It’s nice to have something that really helps these patients that’s not another medication,” said Lisa Blackburn, a lead study author and an oncology clinical nurse specialist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center — Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.
“Not only do these integrative therapy sessions have virtually no side effects, but patients required about 40 percent less pain medication during the procedure than those who didn’t receive these therapies.”
Dr. Thomas Eichler, president-elect of the American Society for Radiation Oncology and a radiation oncologist at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute, told Healthline that a line should be drawn between complementary medicine such as reflexology and aromatherapy and alternative medicine, which he said substitutes “unproven, anecdotal therapies” for scientifically proven treatments.
“I think most oncologists, be they medical, radiation or surgical oncologists, would agree that complementary medicine may be an acceptable part of a care plan, with detailed discussion with patient beforehand, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the standard, mainline treatment,” Eichler said.
“For instance, in the ’90s, it was not uncommon for patients to ask about smoking marijuana for control of nausea and vomiting, for which there was considerable anecdotal evidence of its efficacy. Several years later, antiemetics containing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, made their appearance and have been very effective.”
“Aromatherapy, with which I have had no direct experience, has also been used for nausea and can be an effective adjunct to mainline therapies,” he added. “Acupuncture for pain, meditation and massage therapy for stress, and even music therapy have a place in complementary medicine.”
Cohen lists ginger as an accepted therapy for nausea prevention alongside such drugs as ondansetron, aprepitant, dexamethasone, and prochlorperazine.
“I’m all for acupuncture, yoga, mindfulness meditation, medical marijuana (although I don’t prescribe it), aromatherapy, whatever a patient might find helpful,” Cohen said.
However, Cohen said restricting diet, such as cutting out dairy or meat, is not supported by research.
“People are focused on diet because it is something they have control over, as opposed to cancer or cancer chemotherapy,” said Cohen. “I believe that patients should live their lives as normally as possible within whatever constraints they have.”
Both Eichler and Cohen warned against using vitamins, minerals, and other supplements to substitute for chemotherapy and radiation therapy to treat cancer. Eichler called those strategies “counterproductive and, in some cases, dangerous.”
“I also don’t think it’s helpful for alternative practitioners to offer handfuls of supplements and other pills, not to mention noxious teas, etc., since there is no evidence of benefit and, more importantly, an excessive pill burden actually will make their quality of life worse, not better, with increased nausea” and other side effects, added Cohen.