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Lymphoma

Complementary approaches

Many cancer treatment centres offer complementary therapies such as reflexology, aromatherapy, meditation, and relaxation exercises; they are now often seen as part of conventional support for many patients. Most of these approaches to dealing with cancer have been less thoroughly tested than conventional medicines so their effects are not measured or proven in the same way. They have no proven effect on the growth of cancer, but they seem to help many people to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and promote a sense of well-being. They may also reduce the side effects of cancer treatment. For instance acupuncture may be used to treat nausea resulting from chemotherapy and it may also relieve some types of pain. 

As the word 'complementary' suggests, these approaches should be considered an addition rather than a substitute for conventional medical treatment. Because some complementary therapies may be unsuitable for people with particular types of cancer or having a particular treatment, people with cancer should discuss complementary therapies with their hospital specialist before having them. Health professionals' attitudes towards different complementary therapies varies. Some doctors are particularly cautious about patients using herbal medicines because they are unsure of their effects and possible interactions with other medicines. Patients' attitudes to different complementary therapies also vary; some people we spoke to were happy to use one form of therapy (e.g. acupuncture) but would not consider another (e.g. herbalism). 

 

Her consultant did not mind her having massage during her remission. She also used Reiki and...

Her consultant did not mind her having massage during her remission. She also used Reiki and...

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 45
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I did yoga and my yoga teacher was a Reiki therapist too, so I had some Reiki treatment which I found really very relaxing and very pleasant. I'm always very open minded about alternative therapy. I've also had reflexology, which I love. And actually a friend of mine was doing a massage course and wanted to know if I would be a guinea pig for her. And I said yes I was happy to do that. So I told her what my history was and she went off to her tutor who said, 'Oh, cancer, sort of, you know, haematological cancer, so you can't do, I don't think you can use this person. If you do you'd have to get her consultant to consent. I'd like you to do that'.  So I went to my consultant, said, 'What do you think?' And he said, 'You're in remission,' he said 'I've got no strong views about it, I don't claim to know anything about it, if you want do it you do it. From a medical point of view I don't have a problem.' So in fact this lady's tutor was delighted because she felt that it was great that a consultant had actually said yes, he didn't have a problem. So yes, so I've had massage. 

I still do yoga, I do my yoga because it helps to keep me supple, a bit, more than I usually am. It gives me space, it gives me an hour and a half once a week to switch off because even though I'm retired I'm still leading a chaotic lifestyle. It's a time for sort of meditating and actually sort of really thinking about oneself. So I still do, I still use that. So yes I guess I do.

Did you do yoga before you had your lymphoma?

I did.

So it's something that you continued?

Yes, yes.

 

Knew that complementary therapies were used to help people with cancer but was surprised that the...

Knew that complementary therapies were used to help people with cancer but was surprised that the...

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I felt that there was a wealth of complementary stuff that was about, that was one of the things I found very strange, was that I expected when I was on a cancer ward or a haematology ward with lots of people with lymphomas and leukaemias, that there would be a lot more openness to complementary therapies. And actually there was a completely closed mind up there, they weren't interested in them at all. And I found that quite strange because I think I would have liked to have more. 

The Cancer Support Centre at the hospital offered things like massage and relaxation and things, which was good, but the actual health professionals themselves were quite anti, and I found them quite closed minded about complementary therapies. What I felt was that there were loads and loads of complementary therapies, you know, you go on the internet, complementary therapies to go with types of cancer, and there are millions of them, so where do you start? So you go back to your consultant and say, 'Look I've seen all these things, which one do you think I should try?' And they just say,' Oh well we haven't tested any of those, we couldn't possibly recommend anything and we don't think any of them are going to work anyway.' That was an area where they were quite closed minded I'd say. I would have liked a bit more of that. 

Having said that, I can understand that they're spending so long researching into all the conventional aspects of it that they just don't have the time and energy to keep up with it all, and they couldn't possibly recommend anything to you. But I think they should work more closely hand-in-hand. 

Some people had used complementary remedies to try to relieve their symptoms before they knew that they had lymphoma. For instance a man who had persistent abdominal pain had used acupuncture and another had tried arnica (a herbal and homeopathic remedy) along with heat and ice for his persistent back ache. 

 

While waiting for a biopsy she stopped work, adapted her diet and used natural therapies to build...

While waiting for a biopsy she stopped work, adapted her diet and used natural therapies to build...

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 42
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And anyway I had an x-ray and they had me down for a biopsy. And I think it's quite important actually because I think it made a difference to me, is that I had a friend who was a herbalist, and I was panicking, the fact that it could be cancer, I was panicking. So I immediately contacted my friend and started thinking about things I could do positively to improve my body, improve my immune system. And so I did go on a month's regime where I watched my diet, I stopped working, I did various sort of natural therapies and had a very positive, started having a much more mental positive attitude. 

And so by the time I went to have the biopsy I felt better because prior to that I actually had been feeling quite tired, really tired in fact, you know, especially at night time, I didn't have the energy I should have had. And probably that was about the only real obvious signs that were different. But by the time I had the, before I had the biopsy I was already feeling much better. I was still concerned because it [the lump] was like an egg by then on my neck and I had a job hiding it. 

So what happened was they, after the biopsy, my husband, apparently the doctor spoke to my husband before they really, they thought I had a secondary carcinoma because I think although they took it out intact they didn't think it was lymphoma, they thought it was secondary because the cells, I don't know the details and one of these days I might be, up until now I haven't really, I've always wanted to forget about it, but now I'm quite confident and I would probably like to have some research done. I like to think that the cells had started changing, that in fact my body was starting to take care of it. Because a week before the biopsy I did feel that things were changing and that it was like going to the dentist with a toothache, the toothache seemed to have dulled. And I remember saying that to my husband, 'I'm going in and I feel it's changing, I feel it's going away.' So I personally believe there was a change happening. 

So you said something about doing some therapies of your own while you were waiting for your definitive diagnosis, what were they?

Well diet for a start actually, I mean I eliminated, with his advice I eliminated things like coffee, tea and processed food, and I stuck to very natural foods and high vitamin C and just mainly cutting out processed. And actually I did go to see a doctor in London, a retired doctor, that was another thing we did, who actually didn't charge much, he just wanted to help people. In fact he did, he charged four guineas which was, even in those days we didn't have guineas, it was just a joke thing. But he suggested that we try, you know, he said I should try being a vegetarian, that he would only, in fact he would only treat you if you wanted to eliminate sort of meat, because he had theories about that. But again that suited me fine actually because it was almost part of the natural stuff anyway. 

And also meditation. I used relaxing techniques and just calming myself and trying to sort of get rid of all stress. So it was a detoxing of the body really and I suppose you could say detox of the mind, but it's just relaxing the mind and just generally allowing my body to not put any obstacles in the way of the body's natural healing processes, that's how I saw it. I thought, 'Right OK, give the body every chance to do what it has to do without putting any stress on it'. So that's, that was really the practical way I can analyse the situation and went with it.

Visualisation (mental imagery) has been claimed to stimulate the immune system to limit cancer growth, and research is being done to test this. Visualisation involves the use of imagination while in a state of relaxation or meditation. One woman imagined her chemotherapy tablets chasing and 'zapping' her lymphoma cells, and the monoclonal antibodies cuddling the cells to death. Another imagined a journey that ended with finding a box that emitted a blue light that spread over her body, overpowering its red light.

 

Imagined himself travelling through his blood vessels and killing the bad cells.

Imagined himself travelling through his blood vessels and killing the bad cells.

Age at interview: 60
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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But there was a time when I wasn't in hospital where I think the NHS has told people to do this, where you just lay there and I would put my hand across to my wrist, shut my eyes and imagine that I was travelling through my own body, my blood, the blood cells and arteries. And although I didn't know what was wrong with me at that time I was referring to red blood cells and the green cells were bad. Now within my mind I was destroying those cells and I done this twice, three times and within six months they couldn't find a trace of it although I had to go the full length of chemo. 
 
 

Imagined that his body was a desert island being destroyed by aliens; chemotherapy treatments...

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Imagined that his body was a desert island being destroyed by aliens; chemotherapy treatments...

Age at interview: 24
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 16
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I used to think that when I was on my own and there was nobody, because its very boring having chemotherapy, its very boring, and I used to think that my body was sort of like an island a big sort of, a desert island with palm trees and luscious plants and like sandy beaches. And I used to think that the cancer cells were sort of aliens from an alien film or something and they just used to come round munching all the vegetation and killing all the birds and chopping down all the trees and sort of making everything awful. 

And I used to dream that the chemotherapy was like a big sort of bomb and every time I had a sort of chemotherapy dose that this bomb would go off and just blow up the whole island and rip the vegetation apart and it would damage all the trees and cause big storms but it would also kill off all the cancer cells, all these aliens.

So I thought, and then that was sort of being neutropenic, and then when I started to get better I used to sort of think of the trees slowly growing back, the leaves, the sort of storms going away and then the birds starting to sing, and the greenery sort of coming back. And that's how I used to think that that's how my therapy was going along, that's how I sort of used to try and visualise how things were. And I think that helped me quite a lot actually in a strange way because I used to think that that is how, because I was getting better after my therapy, after my neutropenia, so that it was, I could sort of see it. And in some ways that, I could sort of see myself progressing, if that makes any sense.

Some people used complementary therapies to counter the unwanted effects of conventional treatments or to help them relax and sleep better. Several said acupuncture helped relieve nausea, bloating and heartburn caused by chemotherapy. A woman used osteopathy to help relieve cramping pains in her arm after her chemotherapy injections and acupuncture to help her sleep. One woman adopted a special diet of non-processed foods during her treatment to help her body as much as possible in coping with chemotherapy. 

Several people said that massage helped them to relax. A man said he talked to his Shiatsu massage therapist about his fears, a topic he found difficult to discuss with his family. A woman who enjoyed regular massage, which lifted her spirits, was pleased that she could afford it after her financial adviser had encouraged her to take out critical illness cover. Many people paid for their complementary therapies, others used free therapies provided by volunteer therapists at cancer centres and hospices.

 

Used hypnotherapy to help him relax and sleep better.

Used hypnotherapy to help him relax and sleep better.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 36
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Another thing that came about is I didn't do that much but one of the parents at the school my children go to is a hypnotherapist, and I went along to see her and had a session of hypnotherapy and I was given a tape to take away and you can play back to sort of, and it works better with some people than with others. Some people apparently report when they play the tape they completely lose that time, they don't remember it. I never got to that stage but I did find it helped me to relax and I could listen to the tape which would help me to relax, I could then sleep better if I was having trouble sleeping or anything like that. And that was a help. But beyond that I didn't actually do very much more than go through the normal treatment.

So is the intention of the hypnotherapy that it can help you overcome the illness?

I believe it can actually overcome the illness. My consultant at the hospital I was going to had been looking into it and there was one chap she said had actually had hypnotherapy and I think it was some of the medications to combat the side effects, I couldn't tell you what kind of cancer he had or anything, and he hadn't needed any of it because the hypnotherapy had worked so well that he didn't need a lot of, he needed chemotherapy drugs and he was taking those, but some of the drugs to combat side effects he wasn't using because the hypnotherapy had worked so well with him. Other people had improved and she was firmly of the belief that it does help with the positive outlook and your mind overcoming the body and helping in that respect. It's something I've always been a little bit cynical about but, as I say, even just in helping me relax it was worth it just for that, so if that's all you get out of it, well and good, but it may help you a lot more than that, so it's certainly something I think people should consider. And no I'm not paid by any hypnotherapist.

 

Found that Reiki, reflexology and massage helped him to relax, and is considering using...

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Found that Reiki, reflexology and massage helped him to relax, and is considering using...

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 51
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So again being a bit open minded, which I am on everything, I've had Reiki treatment, I've had reflexology, and I've been very lucky because the local hospice, day hospice I've been going to, they've helped me with massage and Reiki and reflexology. I have to say with Reiki and reflexology, very powerful stuff, I mean I have to say I've found it quite an amazing experience, but I can't say that that has necessarily helped me, sorry cured, you know, like made me feel, made me better, but what it does do if nothing else you can really relax. And I think the other positive is that you feel like you're doing something to help yourself, so it's all the time you need that to keep them things. 

Now the reason I mentioned the sort of alternative therapies is because I'm really keen, well obviously I look at other things, but I will seriously consider acupuncture for sort of medium to long term pain relief because I've got to do something, I don't really want to take drugs. Some of the drugs, you know, the tablets, painkillers, I've had experience when I was first ill, they can cause side effects with your stomach and you get constipation and things like that, so I'd rather go for something a bit more natural. And again I'm touching on something I mentioned before but I'm really a great believer, really what I want to know is' OK I've got a problem, I've got a pain, but what I do, what do we do to get out of that? Or can I expect to get better in six months? And so on, not just keep taking painkillers. There might come a time, and that's why I want to put it off as long as possible, because I may find, I don't know what the future holds, I may need pain killers for later life but at the moment I'm trying to avoid them so I'm looking for alternative things to help that.

So you haven't' done the acupuncture yet, that's for the future?

No I haven't done that yet, no, but definitely for the future and I have discussed it with people who've used it so I'm sort of looking but not yet, no, I will, I definitely think I'll have to try it out, yeah.

 

Had reflexology from a volunteer during treatment, which was relaxing and helped him to sleep; he...

Had reflexology from a volunteer during treatment, which was relaxing and helped him to sleep; he...

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 33
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Oh yes, you mentioned complementary therapies earlier, you said you used reflexology?

Reflexology, yes. 

Was that just for the relaxation effect or did you believe that it might help cure your illness?

It was, no, it was, when I was having treatment, when I was in the middle of treatment once in my local hospital they had someone come round offering, they had a reflexologist that came round and offered, did anyone want their feet doing while he was there? So I said yes. And so he done that and I found that while I was sitting there and I had the treatment going through me, it makes you feel quite tired anyway, but I just found that I just felt that it was quite relaxing while I was sitting there having treatment. So I said to him, 'Would I be able to have this on a permanent basis?' And he said, 'Well because you're having treatment,' which is quite, and I didn't know this but most authorities do it, there's therapists give up their time and they tend to voluntarily do reflexology or massaging in their own time. And this person, that's what he did on a Tuesday, he helped out at the unit where they give the chemotherapy. 

So I had a couple of sessions with him and I didn't, he said to me, 'It's not going to help you, this is not going to help your illness, it's not going to do anything at all, it's just going to relax you', because when you're on certain chemotherapies and that you can't sleep at night, you know you, with the mixture of drugs that you're on, I was on so many drugs that I found that I couldn't sleep at night, I was getting up early hours of the morning, coming downstairs, watching a bit of telly, going back up to bed again. So it got to the stage where I needed to do, find some form of relaxation. And so I went to a couple of sessions of this and I found it quite good. But I also think that if people can get tapes and CDs they're quite helpful as well, and that's another thing that I did. At night when I went to bed, I used to listen to relaxation tapes and CDs, which are really helpful. 

So then I stopped going because I was going through quite a good period so I felt that I didn't need that then. But I've recently just started having reflexology again, and even though I feel quite well it's really beneficial, it really relaxes you and you can have a really good night's sleep. So I feel it's, anyone going to a reflexologist or an aromatherapist, and they're pretty good, they know, you've got to tell them that you're having treatment and what sort of cancer you've got, and they're quite good, they know what areas to stay away from. And with me the reflexologist I've got now she knows what areas to, not to work on, you know, in the lymphatic system. So but other than that it's really good.

Have you used any other types of complementary therapies at all?

No I haven't, no I've only had reflexology. They're quite, I had a couple of sessions of aromatherapy massage where they do the shoulders and your back and that was quite good. But I tend to mainly stick with reflexology because, you know, they can do all your, all the parts of your body, they can work on all different parts of your body just through the feet, so I tend to stick with that one.

A woman had changed her diet and used complementary approaches because she felt the need to get some control over her condition and not just rely on her doctors. A man had tried a tonic made from the Amapa tree and another found some special mushrooms via a website.

 

Used a Chinese herbal remedy because he wanted to do something about his lymphoma while his...

Used a Chinese herbal remedy because he wanted to do something about his lymphoma while his...

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 51
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In the watchful waiting period someone suggested trying Chinese herbs, and I suppose at that point, in the early stages of living with this illness you kind of grab at anything that you can. So I visited a Chinese herbalist in the town near where we live and explained to them what my diagnosis was. And they were remarkably clear about it and they made lots of pulse checks and physical checks of my glands here and there and then prescribed what looked like a bag of compost basically, and said, 'You have to take'', in fact several bags of compost, you come out with a big plastic bag full of these', which you have to make up into a kind of tea. So you boil up these dried leaves and twigs and strange nuts and bits and pieces, you boil them up then pour them through a sieve, allow it too cool and then drink it. It tastes foul, absolutely foul, and they did actually kind of warn me this, 'This will not taste very pleasant, it will be very bitter'. So we actually took the precaution of having a jar of honey standing by so I could actually put a mouthful of honey, a spoonful of honey into my mouth and do'. 

I did that for, I kept that up for a couple of years probably till the chemotherapy was necessary, towards the end of the watchful waiting period. I don't really know whether it did any good or not, it felt like I was doing something good. My immune system, because obviously lymphoma is a disease of the immune system, my immune system was always described by the specialists as being pretty good, my marrow counts, whatever they are, have always been quite good. So perhaps, and the Chinese herbalist said, 'This will boost your immune system'. One of the odd things was prior to being diagnosed I'd had a few coughs and colds and the usual winter flu's, I've not had a cough, cold, flu, anything like that since becoming unwell and since starting to take the Chinese herbs. I don't take them any more but, you know, it seemed to do something. Maybe it was psychological, I don't know, but I got used to the taste so I could drink it without honey.

What made you decide to try that stuff?

In a word, desperation, I suppose, one will try almost anything at that point. I did a lot of research and reading, and I'd read about the so-called Mexican clinics that people hear about, where they promise wonder treatments using natural remedies. I'd read about some treatment based on apricot seeds, which again claim wonderful results. But at least the Chinese herbal thing was kind of accessible, there was someone in the high street selling them so, 'OK, I'll talk to them', and I gave it a go and it didn't do me any harm. 

Interestingly my haematologist, I told him that I was doing this, he wasn't dismissive, which I kind of thought he might be, and in fact he was quite interested in it and explained that in his mind a lot of very good treatments are still in the world out there that we just haven't discovered yet. And I think to try and explain to me that perhaps it was not bizarre to be drinking dried up leaves and things, but one of the most powerful drugs for breast cancer is made from the leaves of the Yew tree. So science is one way, Chinese medicine the other but, you know, it's a similar process.

So do you think you felt desperate to try and do something because you were not being given any conventional medical treatment?

No it wasn't that, I think I just wanted to do something. I think had I been having conventional treatment from the outset I may have tried it. I think partly it was because if I'd have had the conventional treatment, let's call it that, if I'd have had conventional treatment I may have been reluctant to go with the Chinese because of the risk of possible conflict. And I suppose that’s what made me stop taking it when I went onto chemotherapy. But I think it was just the thought, “Well let’s try anything”, you know, one hears of these things, one hears of miracle cures, one hears of people getting better without anything, so yeah, it was just a way of trying something out.

After completion of treatment, several people tried to strengthen their immune system and prevent infections by taking vitamin or mineral supplements, herbal or homeopathic remedies, organic foods, deeply coloured fruits and vegetables and other foods high in antioxidants such as green tea. 

 

Uses a homeopathic remedy in the hope that it will prevent him from catching infections.

Uses a homeopathic remedy in the hope that it will prevent him from catching infections.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 44
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Have you thought about or used any complementary remedies at all for your illness?

Nothing in terms of direct treatment of lymphoma as such or, at the moment hopefully. But in terms of the infections since the treatment, I have actually consulted a GP homeopathist and I've tried various treatments aimed at different things at different points. We have tried a, it was a sulphur drug base for the chest. I'm not a hundred per cent sure how good these things were. I continue with something called lycopodium, which is a sort of a general feel-good type of thing to try. And it's just taken once a month. It's six tablets virtually at once. So, yes, I have done that. But I haven't been able to say, 'I was there. I took that and I became, you know, I moved to there'. 

Of those who chose not to use any complementary approaches, some regarded complementary approaches as just not their 'thing', or thought that other people might benefit, while others said the lymphoma was too serious to use any approaches that their doctors did not suggest. Some of the people who felt this way had used complementary approaches for other health issues. One woman thought the illness experience was traumatic and invasive enough without having additional treatments, another didn't want to do anything that might interfere with her conventional treatment. A woman had decided not to risk having a massage because she was told it might 'send all the cells round your body'. Research has shown that it is safe for people with cancer to have massage but it should avoid the parts of the body affected by the cancer.

 

Had been given some information about complementary approaches but had felt no need to use any.

Had been given some information about complementary approaches but had felt no need to use any.

Age at interview: 67
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 67
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Have you thought about or tried any complementary remedies at all?

A friend did send me information from the Bristol Cancer Information Centre, which I did read but I don't feel that I have felt in need of relaxation tapes or the need to have special foods, I haven't a problem with my appetite. Apart from really one low point I haven't felt the need for encouragement to get me through, you know, I have felt quite positive about it and quite happy. But I can see that the Cancer Information Centre at Bristol would help people who have more aggressive cancers, who are suffering pain and other side effects. But fortunately I haven't felt the need for that. So no I haven't tried any complementary medicines.

People were often aware of alternative approaches to treating cancer, but were very sceptical about claims that they might be effective. Friends and family members had sometimes suggested using alternative therapies instead of conventional medicine but no one we talked to had decided to take this advice. In some cases this was because the alternative approaches seemed too time-consuming - in one woman's words' “When the sands of time are running out you don't want to squander them making carrot soup”. 

 

A friend had suggested using homeopathy instead of chemotherapy but she didn't believe it could...

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A friend had suggested using homeopathy instead of chemotherapy but she didn't believe it could...

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 16
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Have you ever used, or thought about using any complementary type therapies to do with your lymphoma?

Well apparently one of mum's friends who's really into homeopathy wanted me not to have, suggested to mum that I didn't have chemo and I just had, but I'm really, I don't believe in that. I think some things homeotherapy medicines can help you with but when it comes to cancer, however much you don't want chemicals pumped into you, I think people who've been doing research for years know more about it than a homeopathic person. So I think I wouldn't have agreed to have done that, however much, you know, side effects, whatever.
 

Last reviewed February 2016.


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