Conventional cancer care can sometimes be as debilitating as the disease itself. Incorporating naturopathic oncology can help decrease side effects and improve treatment efficacy.
Most people diagnosed with cancer dread the treatments as much as the disease itself. Chemotherapy, radiation and drugs can have serious side effects and make you feel sicker than the cancer does. So it’s not surprising that naturopathic oncology is becoming well developed in human medicine. And as people demand alternative services to help them cope with the ravages of conventional cancer care, they are also seeking similar options for their animal companions.
The naturopathic approach
Although naturopathic medicine draws on diverse and seemingly very different healing traditions, certain principles are shared across these traditions.
1. Look at the whole animal
The diagnosis of cancer is important, but the definitive diagnosis is not central to the naturopathic approach. Naturopathic oncology takes the position of evaluating the whole patient and focusing primarily on improving health and well-being. It addresses all aspects of health promotion, including physical factors and conditions as well as diet, environment and genetics, and even spiritual aspects and the bond between the animal and his family. If conventional cancer care is being used, a veterinarian using an integrative approach will also look for natural, non-invasive ways to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy or radiation, minimize side effects, and empower you to take control of your animal’s health.
2.“First do no harm”
Naturopathic oncology emphasizes therapies that are non-invasive and natural and that do not make animals less well. These can be the main treatments or used with chemotherapy or radiation.
3. Use the healing power of nature
This approach also pays attention to the basics of improving general health:
• Moderate or gentle exercise.
• Positive thinking on your part – using terms like “living with
cancer” or “treating it like a chronic disease” rather than
regarding the disease as a “war” we are “fighting”.
• Attention to healthy air and environment – e.g. avoiding
toxins, giving the animal pure water, spending time in nature.
• Most importantly, a great diet to meet the individual
4. Treat the imbalance
Veterinarians who practice naturopathic oncology look for underlying contributing factors to the imbalance in a dog or cat’s health – often, lifestyle (obesity, lack of exercise), exposure to chemicals and some drugs, chronic stress and dietary influences play a role. 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. This approach therefore uses therapies to restore balance.
5. Practice preventative medicine
If your dog or cat has had any kind of tumor successfully removed, it’s important to realize that the tendency to produce further tumors has not yet been healed. You need to make sure that everything you do for your animal helps strengthen his immune system and minimize the risk of new cancers. Attention to vaccination, chemical use, parasite control and drug use is especially important.
If your dog or cat has been diagnosed with cancer, working with an integrative or holistic veterinarian with a knowledge of naturopathic oncology will give you the best of both worlds when it comes to treating him. A good starting point is with his diet.
Highly processed commercial foods may encourage some forms of cancer to grow through their effects on metabolism. Fresh whole foods, meanwhile, may enhance the potency of chemotherapy and help protect cells from toxicity. Phytochemicals in plants improve immunity and health. Quality or home-prepared diets are also more palatable and nutrientrich, often enabling you to hide supplements and herbs in the food. Try to look for organic foods, if possible, to minimize chemical exposure. Make sure food is cooked if the animal is on chemotherapy, immune-suppressive or gut-damaging drugs. A diet comprised of protein (meat, eggs, fish, chicken), vegetables (especially above-ground vegetables), a small amount of whole grains (<25% of calories), oils and supplements is ideal.
Along with a nutrient-dense whole food supplement that’s high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, the following are important considerations.
• Fish oil supplements – DHA
• 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 the effectiveness of chemotherapy
Which supplements you use, and what the dosages will be, depends on your individual animal’s requirements, which is why it’s important to work with a vet.
Herbs offer a variety of benefits in the integrative treatment of cancer. Herbal medicine can reduce the toxicity of treatment; support the animal through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation; or provide a palliative option when conventional treatment is declined. Ideally, herbs are prescribed according to the animal’s vitality, energetics, symptoms, concurrent treatment, prognosis and diagnosis. Selecting the right herbs to support the animal, improve vitality and immunity, and provide anticancer activity must be done by either a qualified veterinary herbalist or a veterinarian with 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.
• Most conventional veterinary chemotherapeutic agents (as well as radiation therapy) are immune-suppressing and cytotoxic in nature, and associated with short- and long-term side effects. Immune-modulating 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. They may also offer anti-neoplastic activity. There are many effective anticancer medicinal fungi as well.
Among the recommended medicinal fungi or other immune-supporting herbs are cat’s claw, phytosterols, astragalus, Echinacea, cordyceps, and withania. Studies indicate that daily dietary administration of Echinacea purpurea root may result in significant elevations in natural killer cells, suggesting that it may have a prophylactic role in normal animals.
• Green tea – an effective chemo-preventive agent
• Milk thistle
• Silymarin and silibinin (silybin) – anti-cancer effects
• Turmeric – scavenges free radicals
• Curcumin – halts carcinogenesis by inhibiting cytochrome P450 enzyme activity and increasing levels of glutathione-S-transferase
• Dan shen – free radical scavenging activity; one of its tanshinone constituents possesses cytotoxic activity against many kinds of human carcinoma cell lines
• Schisandra – lignans act as free radical scavengers; geranylgeranoic acid, a constituent of schisandra, has been shown to induce apoptosis in a human hepatoma-derived cell line
• Ginkgo biloba leaf extract – significant antioxidant activity because of its flavonoid and terpenoid components; the anti-cancer properties of ginkgo are related to its antioxidant, anti-angiogenic, and gene-regulatory actions
• Rosemary – antioxidant activity
It’s best not to give your dog or cat herbs without first consulting with a veterinarian well-versed in herbal medicine. The selection and dosage of herbs will vary depending on your animal’s disease state and needs.
Gut function also impacts innate immunity, so appropriate diet and support (probiotics, marshmallow, licorice, glutamine, fiber, antioxidants, or antioxidant herbs) will help.
• Detoxification is an herbal medicine principle in cancer treatment, because cancer is thought to be the end result of accumulated toxins in the body. The use of alteratives, which improve elimination and physiology (not to be confused with the word “alternatives”), appears helpful, particularly in the early stages of cancer when vitality is still good. Essiac is a commonly used formula that consists of four herbs, three of which are considered mild alteratives. This formula is also beneficial in the palliative care of end-stage cancer patients. Other alteratives include dandelion root, yellow dock, burdock, red clover and sheep sorrel.
• Antioxidants are important to cancer treatment and palliation. Often, the animal is subjected to free radical damage through treatment. Herbs with antioxidant activity can reduce the side effects of both chemotherapy and radiation, as well as the oxidative stress of general anesthesia. There are several promising herbs whose antioxidant activity has been demonstrated in relation to anticancer properties, cancer prevention, and treatment.
The number one goal of naturopathic oncology is to improve systemic health. Dogs and cats can and do go into remission with this approach – but more frequently, they can live with the chronic disease of cancer in a well state. The nearer your dog or cat’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 cancer patients. In my experience, people often remark on their animals being “more well” than they’ve been in years, despite the presence of cancer!
Dr. Fougere graduated in 1986 from Murdoch School of Veterinary School Western Australia and practices integrative medicine in Sydney. She holds Masters degrees in herbal medicine, education and training, and a Bachelor degree in complementary medicine. She was named the AHVMA Practitioner of the Year in 2010 and Educator of the Year for 2011. Dr. Fougere is one of the founders and on the faculty of the College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies. She has served on the board of many Australian veterinary organizations, the AHVMA, VBMA, IVAS She is currently the chairperson of the College of Veterinary Botanical Medicine. She is the author of several books and co-author of more. She travels the world teaching and speaking to veterinarians about holistic modalities.