Many people are seeking naturopathic oncology alternatives. Learn more on how to assist clients in choosing a natural treatment path for their pets.
Naturopathic oncology is becoming well developed in human medicine. And as people demand naturopathic services to help them cope with the ravages of conventional cancer care, they are also seeking alternatives for their animals. As integrative veterinarians, we occupy an unprecedented position in the field of veterinary oncology.
With our expertise, we can diagnose, treat and help prevent disease using conventional approaches as well as natural therapies, diet, herbs or other remedies that influence the natural healing capacity of our patients. Most owners of pets with cancer are desperate, often on a roller coaster of emotional turmoil, so they search the internet to find approaches to “cure” cancer – a regime or unique product with convincing testimonials. When they ask regular veterinarians or their oncologist for guidance, they are often advised against all alternatives. We can guide these clients through the confusing array of products and assist them in choosing a treatment path for their pets. We can offer therapies that halt or induce apoptosis in cancer cells, mitigate side effects, improve the efficacy of chemotherapy and usually improve quality of life.
Taking on the responsibility of treating life-threatening aggressive cancer requires a solid understanding of the standard treatments employed in veterinary medicine and by veterinary oncologists. We need to know the prognosis for different approaches (chemotherapy versus radiation, etc.), different cancers, and for the individual pet and family circumstances. We need to present the best alternatives to maximize quality of life and treat the patient. Often, the prognosis is so grave that conventional medicine provides no further options for treatment. Naturopathic oncology offers options even when an animal is considered in hospice.
The great joy of being involved in naturopathic oncology is that our toolbox is so much larger than the one other veterinarians draw upon. It is empowering to know there is always something more that can be done to help our patients, and even more phenomenal to be able to improve their health well beyond expectations, and create a “spontaneous remission” – something that the veterinary paradigm says is impossible given the original diagnosis.
The naturopathic approach
Although naturopathic medicine draws on diverse and seemingly very different healing traditions, certain principles are shared across these traditions.
1. The whole patient The diagnosis of cancer is important, but the definitive diagnosis is not central to our approach. Naturopathic oncology takes the position of evaluating the whole patient and focusing primarily on improving health and well-being. We need to address all aspects of health promotion, including physical factors (gut function, elimination, inflammation, pain), diet, any specific needs of the patient (dry eye, comorbidrenal disease, etc.), the owner/animal bond (including support for the owner), environmental factors, spiritual aspects and even genetic factors. If conventional care is being used, we will look for natural, non-invasive ways to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy or radiation, minimize side effects, and empower our clients to take control of their animals’ health.
2. “First do no harm” We emphasize therapies that are non-invasive and natural and that do not make our patients less well. These can be the main treatments or used with chemotherapy or radiation.
3. The healing power of nature We pay attention to the basics of improving general health.
- Moderate or gentle exercise.
- Positive thinking by the owner – coaching terms like “living with cancer” or “treating it like a chronic disease” rather than a “war” we are “fighting”.
4. Treating the imbalance We look for underlying contributing factors to the imbalance in health – often, lifestyle (obesity, lack of exercise), exposure to chemicals and some drugs, chronic stress and dietary influences play a role. Special care needs to be taken to avoid assigning blame. From a naturopathic perspective, cancer arises from an imbalance or accumulation of toxicity, causing a lack of immune surveillance or control that allows cancer cells to grow. We therefore prescribe therapies to restore balance.
5. Teaching and empowering clients Empowering our clients to control the things they can, while listening to them with respect and encouraging and supporting them, can make a difference. If they feel empowered, their animals will sense more positive emotions from them, which can improve their own moods and healing.
6. Preventative medicine We need to make sure that everything we recommend or do helps strengthen the immune system and prevent illness. Attention to vaccination, chemical use, parasite control, drug use, etc. is important. If a patient has had any kind of tumor successfully removed, the tendency to produce further tumors has not yet been healed. Now is the time to implement changes to minimize the risk of new tumors.
Recommend the elimination or reduction of dry foods as a key part of the strategy. Highly processed foods may contribute to insulin resistance, the processing of by-products like acrylamides, and may encourage some forms of cancer to grow through their effects on metabolism. Fresh whole foods may enhance the potency of chemotherapy and help protect cells from toxicity. Phytochemicals in plants improve immunity and health. Home-prepared diets are also more palatable and nutrient-rich, often enabling us to hide supplements and herbs in the food. Recommend organic foods, if possible, to minimize chemical exposure. Make sure food is cooked if the pet is on chemotherapy immune-suppressive or gut-damaging drugs. We recommend protein (meat, eggs, fish, chicken), vegetables (especially above-ground vegetables), a small amount of whole grains (<25% of calories), oils and supplements.
Be conscious of what the owner and animal are capable of. Don’t overdo it. Use products that cover more than one aspect in order to minimize the number of things that could affect either palatability or the human/animal bond. We recommend a whole food supplement, nutrient-dense and high in antioxidants, containing seeds, calcium, goji berry, spirulina, barley grass, kelp, vitamins and minerals.
- Fish oil supplements – DHA 30mg/kg
- Green tea – a highly concentrated source of antioxidants
- Melatonin – may be useful
- Whey protein – improves immune function and maintains body weight
- Mushrooms and mushroom extracts
- Turmeric – especially the concentrated extract, curcumin; can enhance effectiveness of chemotherapy
Some people suggest that acupuncture is contra-indicated in cancer treatment. However, research suggests that cancer can improve immunity, reduce nausea and improve well-being during cancer treatment (Deng et al 2013). We use it routinely to enhance energy and well-being.
Herbal medicine offers animals a variety of benefits in the integrative treatment of cancer. It can reduce toxicity of treatment; support the patient through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation; or provide a palliative option when conventional treatment is declined. Ideally, herbs are prescribed according to the patient’s vitality, energetics, symptoms, concurrent treatment, prognosis and diagnosis. Selecting herbs to support the patient, improve vitality and immunity, and provide anticancer activity is a fundamental. When treating potentially life-threatening disease, it behooves us as practitioners to either refer these cases to qualifi d veterinary herbalists, or undertake additional study to gain an in-depth knowledge of herbal medicine for cancer treatment.
Many adaptogens such as astragalus, withania, Siberian ginseng and Korean ginseng can strengthen body resistance and enhance vitality, particularly in debilitated animals. These herbs also have anti-cancer properties.
Immune function enhancers
Most conventional veterinary chemotherapeutic agents (as well as radiation therapy) are immune-suppressing and cytotoxic in nature and are associated with short- and longterm side effects (McEntee 2006, McKnight 2003). Immunemodulating and immune-stimulating herbs may prevent or minimize the undesired adverse effects of these agents by strengthening resistance to the treatment’s side effects or to the cancer, and they may offer anti-neoplastic activity. There are many effective anti-cancer medicinal fungi.
Among the recommended medicinal fungi or other immune-supporting herbs are cat’s claw, phytosterols, astragalus, echinacea, cordyceps, and withania. Daily dietary administration of Echinacea purpurea root extract to normal mice, for as little as one week, also resulted in significant elevations in natural killer cells. Such boosting of this fundamental immune cell population suggests a prophylactic role for this herb in normal animals (Currier 2001). Gut function also impacts innate immunity, so appropriate diet and support (probiotics, marshmallow, licorice, glutamine, fiber, antioxidants, or antioxidant herbs) will help immunity.
Alteratives (not to be confused with “alternatives”)
Detoxification is a herbal medicine principle in cancer treatment, because cancer is thought to be the end result of accumulated toxins in the body. While some may argue with this theory, the use of alterative (which imrporve elimination and physiology) nevertheless appears helpful, particularly in the early stage of cancer when vitality is still food. Essiac is a commonly-used formula that consists of four hers, three of which are considered mild alteratives. This formula is also beneficial in the palliative care of endstage cancer patients. Other alteratives to consider include dandelion root, yellow dock, poke root (which is toxic and should only be used by experience herbalists), burdock, red clover and sheep sorrel.
Antioxidants are important for treatment and palliation. Often the patient is subjected to free radical damage through treatment, and herbs with antioxidant activity can reduce the side effects of both chemotherapy and radiation, as well as the oxidative stress of general anesthesia.The literature includes several promising herbs whose antioxidant activity has been demonstrated in relation to anticancer properties, cancer prevention, and treatment.
- Green tea– an effective chemopreventive agent (Katiyar 1997)
- Milk thistle
- Silmarin and Silibinin (silybin) – anti cancer effects (Gazak 2007)
- Turmeric – scavenges free radicals (Tilak 2004)
- Curcumin – halts carcinogenesis by inhibiting cytochrome P450 enzyme activity and increasing levels of glutathione-Stransferase (Chauhan 2002)
- Dan Shen – free radical scavenging activity (Xia 2003); one of its tanshinone constituents possesses cytotoxic activity against many kinds of human carcinoma cell lines (Yuan 2003)
- Schisandra – lignans act as free radical scavengers (Lu 1992); geranylgeranoic acid, a constituent of Schisandra, has been shown to induce apoptosis in a human hepatomaderived cell line (Shidoji 2004)
- Ginkgo bilaboa leaf extract – significant antioxidant activity because of its flavonoid and terpenoid components; the anti-cancer properties of ginkgo are related to itsantioxidant, anti- angiogenic, and gene-regulatory actions
- Rosemary – antioxidant activity (ESCP 1999)
Strategy for herbal use
Be strategic about herb selection; the more knowledge one has, the fewer herbs are needed to improve health. Consider rotating through formulas. We routinely use a formula targeted at the needs of the patient, an immune-supporting formula, one for when the animal is undergoing chemotherapy, or formulas for post-surgery or during radiation. An example is Yunnan bai yao – which reduces the risk of bleeding and has inherent anti-cancer properties – as part of the protocol for treating haemangiosarcoma.
The number one goal of treatment is to improve systemic health. Patients can go into remission; but more frequently, they can live with the chronic disease of cancer in a well state. It is important to normalize weight, provide a low-carbohydrate diet, reduce stress, ensure normal elimination processes, and provide exercise opportunities. If the patient has an acute condition such as diarrhea, give that priority and treat it accordingly.
The nearer the patient’s vitality is restored to normal, the better the expected outcome. Despite the poorest prognoses based on diagnosis, wellness and vitality are still achievable in some patients. In the author’s experience, clients often remark on their pets being “more well” than they have been in years, despite the presence of cancer.