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Ovarian Cancer

Complementary approaches

Complementary approaches to dealing with cancer have usually not been rigorously tested so their effects are not measured or proven in the same way as many conventional medicines. Moreover, as the name 'complementary' suggests, these approaches should be considered an addition rather than a substitute for conventional medical treatment. Complementary therapies have no proven effect on the growth of cancer but seem to help many people cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and promote a sense of well-being.

Most of the women we talked to did not expect complementary approaches to have any effect on their cancer but used a variety of therapies to help them relax and feel better. Many different approaches were tried including reflexology, aromatherapy and massage, relaxation and meditation, spiritual healing including Reiki, hypnotherapy, homeopathic or naturopathic remedies, yoga, tai chi, qi jung, Alexander technique and magnetic healing. Art therapy classes helped some to express their feelings about their illness.

 

Describes using relaxation meditation and how it helped her to stay calm and to sleep.

Describes using relaxation meditation and how it helped her to stay calm and to sleep.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 59
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I think this last time I was sort of so joyous about my results that I think she, she felt that, oh yes she did actually, give me some meditation to do, some relaxation meditation which was very useful. And she suggested that I did some deep breathing and just stood or, oh I was telling her that in the middle of the night my brain jumps around and I think about all sorts of things and, connected to this, and that I couldn't settle down and I couldn't sleep. So she suggested that I either stood or sat and imagined that the weight was going into my bottom or my feet and that all the energy was going down into the ground so therefore it would come away from my brain and that it would still my brain.

And then also she gave me a relaxation technique to imagine that you could feel a point at the top of your head and that you traced the line down your nose, under your chin, down your chest, between your legs and up your back to the top of your head again and then you go down by your ear, down your shoulder, down your arm, up under your arm, down under your legs and then round and trace it back to your other ear and to the top of your head again. And because you'd be concentrating so much you actually wouldn't be thinking about other things. And I've done that and I felt that that is really helpful.

 

Had homeopathy, reflexology, reiki and massage, all of which helped her to feel better.

Had homeopathy, reflexology, reiki and massage, all of which helped her to feel better.

Age at interview: 51
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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I had homoeopathy - is that how you pronounce it? - homeopathy, and I had reflexology for six months as well. And I had Reiki. I don't know whether any of them actually helped but they made me feel better in myself! They certainly made me feel more relaxed. And my friend that came with me right at the beginning who works at a hospice, she's a trained aromatherapist, so I've had some massage as well. It certainly helps - it makes you feel better in yourself. Whether it actually fights the disease or not, I don't know. But it worked for me, so'.

 

Listened to a relaxation tape and had reflexology from a volunteer to help her relax.

Listened to a relaxation tape and had reflexology from a volunteer to help her relax.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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The nurse specialist at the hospital, she was extremely good, she contacted the palliative care team, actually, while I was in the hospital and got me on loan a relaxation tape which was actually excellent. It was very good. And she was helpful for those sort of aspects of it. And yes, I benefited from that; I had that on loan for quite a while so that was good.  

How does the reflexology help?  Does it just help to relax you?

Yes, it's just a lovely relaxing thing to have done. And one of the things out of all this, of course, is I've just sort of met some marvellously kind and dedicated people, really. And the reflexologist, she's a volunteer, a lovely lady and we just have a really nice hour together. She does the reflexology and we chat and we have the music playing and it's just a very nice relaxing experience. Yes, I find it really nice.

 

Attended art therapy sessions to help her to unwind.

Attended art therapy sessions to help her to unwind.

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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I go to art therapy, art therapy is a tremendous help and we find few people sort of come forward to that. I don't know if they're afraid of it, they think they can't draw or something, which is not what it's about, but it is wonderfully releasing and relaxing, and I've got a huge file of work upstairs. And that's one of things that has helped me possibly most because if I'm really uptight or if I've had huge doses of steroids, which sometimes has happened and I'm wired up, then the art therapy helps because I can get out the pastels or the paints and I can actually work on something and it defuses that feeling.  

Some women used therapies to counteract unwanted effects of conventional treatments. One took a homeopathic remedy to help her recover from surgery, and several said acupuncture helped them with unwanted effects of chemotherapy. Ginger, in various forms, was used to counter the nausea sometimes caused by chemotherapy; others tried liquorice, milk thistle, special mushrooms from the Far East or a particular type of herbal tea (Essiac) to counter side effects such as constipation. Some women had been advised by their oncologists to avoid herbal remedies during treatment.

 

Was impressed with the acupuncture she had to counter the unwanted effects of chemotherapy.

Was impressed with the acupuncture she had to counter the unwanted effects of chemotherapy.

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 59
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The other thing that made me feel really strong was I used to have acupuncture from an acupuncturist who was very clear that what he was trying to do was strengthen my own immune system to cope with the treatments. And I used to have a go of acupuncture about three days or two days before my treatment and another one 10 days after my treatment. 

So for those 6 months I was having acupuncture, and he was very, very remarkable because he used to pick up things which I never told him about. For example, one day I was starting a chest infection and he said 'I can feel things are not too good in your lung field so I'm going to work on that today'. And I'd always been very traditional medicine oriented and not much into alternative, but as a complementary therapy to what I was going through, I was seriously converted to this support while I was having my chemotherapy.

 

Followed a recommendation to take ginger in various forms to reduce nausea caused by chemotherapy.

Followed a recommendation to take ginger in various forms to reduce nausea caused by chemotherapy.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 58
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I had a little bit of sickness. But here again, you see, I remembered that we went on a boat one year, we went on a cruise and I got seasick and this woman said to me, who I met on this cruise, she said to me 'you know what' she said 'if you suffer from sickness the best thing that you can take is ginger'. And hence I've started to take a lot of ginger and I started to drink ginger and lemon. And I found that by taking ginger and drinking ginger wine on those days when I did feel sick, it did help, although a couple of times I was sick. But nothing that I couldn't cope with, it wasn't sort of a genuine regular thing, it was only now and again. But I did take a lot of ginger and that really, really helped. I used to buy bags of this crystallised ginger, it was great and that used to keep the, you know, the sickness away.

Some unconventional medicines are claimed to have an effect on cancer growth by boosting the immune system but there is no convincing evidence so far. Several women took a herbal medicine derived from mistletoe, alongside other remedies. Another took a mineral tablet that was claimed to deter cancer by keeping her system alkaline. She was also considering taking B17, a naturally occurring cyanide found in the stones of some fruits. Several women talked about changing their diet or eating organic food (see 'Lifestyle and work changes').

 

Took a mistletoe extract, a special herbal tea, Japanese mushrooms and noni juice in the hope of...

Took a mistletoe extract, a special herbal tea, Japanese mushrooms and noni juice in the hope of...

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 39
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For a couple of years now I have been injecting mistletoe from a company in Germany. This is quite a common treatment in Europe but not so much here, and I do that 3 times a week. And I really feel since it's now been 7 years, almost 7 years, and I'm still here and still enjoying life, that although there's been no double-blind studies it's, something must be working.  

I also have a kind of medicinal tea sent over from Canada, friends bring it over every time they come, and I drink that every day. And some kind of mushroom concoction from Japan and Noni juice from the Polynesian Islands. I also spend time meditating every day; I find that to be very important. I have a lot of music in my life but I still think that what keeps me going is the fact that I love life and I'm not ready to let go of it yet.  

It has also been claimed that visualisation (mental imagery) can be used to stimulate the immune system to affect 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 that the mistletoe she was taking was flushing out cancer cells from her body, another that her white blood cells were attacking her cancer. A woman who said that visualising helped her to see her chemotherapy as life-giving rather than a poison imagined following a path through a forest to a chasm which she had to cross.

 

Describes a form of visualisation she used to help her deal with her cancer.

Describes a form of visualisation she used to help her deal with her cancer.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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And then I read of a visualisation someone, I don't remember which book, I've read so many, it might have been the Bernie Siegal one, I'm not sure, and at some point in a visualisation you have to, there's a chasm of some kind that you have to cross, and you have to build a bridge with whatever's around, you have to build a bridge to cross it, you have to work out how to get across it. And I remember looking around while I was visualising, looking around, I'm a very impatient person, I've said that, and I decided to jump. So I jumped across it, and then you had to walk on a path that would lead you through a forest, and you had to keep following it right, if there were any left forks you didn't take them. Well mine didn't have one, didn't have any forks off, it just went straight through the forest, and then you would come to a clearing where there was a hot air balloon waiting, and you'd get in there and you'd go all the way up to space so the earth was like we see the moon, you know, and you write down the things that were annoying you or whatever, and you'd screw it up and let it float in space and you'd come back down. 

I did that a few times and then I found I was getting into, so I did that a few times and then I noticed that when I was jumping across this chasm every morning it was filling in, you know, like sand does, it was just, there were lips growing out of it and a little bit more every morning. And at first sight I didn't notice it and then one day I thought 'oh, it's going to form a bridge', and now it's a thick bridge, it is a really big bridge when I do it now, and I still jump across though. And I go through the forest, on occasions it's been a jungle and there've been flowers or animals and things but that's, that varies from day to day, and I really don't know why, it just, go with it.

People often tried several complementary approaches before they found one that suited them and encouraged others to do what seemed right for them rather than being dictated to by well-meaning friends. Some women stopped having therapies if they didn't think the treatment was working, or found the ideas too 'zany'. A couple of women said they stopped listening to their relaxation tapes because they found it upsetting or depressing to focus on their illness.

One woman was planning to visit a practitioner who specialised in therapies to help the body deal with stress, while another said she believed that hugging people was beneficial because strength could be exchanged through peoples 'auras', in a similar way to Reiki (a type of spiritual healing).

Some women had not used complementary approaches either because they didn't know about them, or because they didn't believe in the claims made about them and preferred to stick to conventional medicine. One said that working was her therapy as it kept her mind off her illness and another recommended a 'cup of tea and a good book'. Several women talked about alternative approaches which involved rejecting conventional medicine but had all decided that they could not take the approaches themselves.

 

Explains why she rejected alternative therapies in favour of conventional medicine.

Explains why she rejected alternative therapies in favour of conventional medicine.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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Other people have kind of suggested that I investigate alternative therapies and things, and I know that I could. There's this book here, is it 'My Journey' by Brandon Bays. She rejects all treatment and decides to get rid of her own tumour by positive mental attitude and raw food and, and she does it, you know, and fantastic, good for her. I just am not that person, I can't do that. I couldn't not go down the chemotherapy route, I just couldn't do it to my family really, because I know it's the medical model, but I actually believe that it's the only, it's the only way that I can go.  

The cost deters some people from using complementary therapies. A woman who had sampled aromatherapy and yoga when they were provided free said she couldn't afford to pay to have them regularly. In some areas certain complementary therapies may be available on the NHS via the GP or provided free by volunteer therapists working at cancer centres and hospices.  

 

Sampled aromatherapy and yoga when they were provided free but couldn't afford to pay to have...

Sampled aromatherapy and yoga when they were provided free but couldn't afford to pay to have...

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 35
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Have you thought about or used any complementary or alternative remedies or anything like that?

I would love to say that I have, but I haven't. 

My husband was working away from home when I was diagnosed with cancer, and gave up his work to come home. He's a teacher and he went on to be a supply teacher back here. And that meant that his, our income wasn't steady by any means, so things like complementary therapies are expensive, and  much as I would have loved to have taken advantage of them, we just couldn't afford to with two small children. I do sample them when I get a chance, I've had, I've had a little bit of aromatherapy, but not on a regular basis. I do appreciate the benefits of them, I did do a course of yoga that my local support group put on for a while but apart from that...


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Last reviewed June 2016.

Last updated June 2016.

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