Integrative Methods Address Common Breast Cancer Quality-of-Life Issues

A moderate intake of fruits and vegetables is linked with a decreased risk of all-cause, cancer- and cardiovascular-related mortality, an expert said.

Integrative approaches — such as the use of cannabis, supplements or yoga — can help improve outcomes and quality of life for patients with breast cancer. However, it is essential that patients discuss these options with their health care providers before utilizing them, explained Dr. Michelle Sexton from the University of California San Diego’s Center for Integrative Medicine.

At the CURE® Educated Patient® Breast Cancer Summit, Sexton discussed complementary methods patients can use alongside their traditional cancer treatment to improve aspects including overall health, sleep, anxiety and cognitive functioning.

“You can think of this as your oncologist [trying] to remove weeds, while the rest of your body is a garden. Your integrative specialist is there to attend to the health and nurturing of the entire garden,” Sexton said.

Healthy Eating and Supplement Use

“One of the ways that cannabis is typically used — and this is where some of the best evidence for cannabis is — is for stimulating appetite and helping in the setting of nausea and vomiting associated with cancer therapy,” Sexton said.

Additionally, the food that patients eat may play a role in their cancer outcomes as well. Sexton cited research published in Nature Communications that found that moderate intake of flavonoids (a substance found in fruit and vegetables) was associated with decreased risk of all-cause, cancer- and cardiovascular-related mortality.

“So just as a basic reminder, eating unrefined foods, eating a rainbow or a plate of colorful foods, eating organically as much as you can, using spices, getting your hydration needs met, and also not neglecting the importance of enjoying food in the setting of food and eating mindfully [can be beneficial],” Sexton said.

Regarding the use of supplements, Sexton urged patients to remember that the supplement industry is not well controlled. While the Food and Drug Administration monitors and checks for safety regarding medications, there is no governing body doing the same for supplements. As such, Sexton recommends that patients work with an integrative specialist when determining if supplements can be safe and beneficial.

Supplements that may help support immune support in patients with cancer include indole-3-carbinol (I3C), diindolylmethane (DIM) — which naturally occurs in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower — and medicinal mushrooms.


Quality sleep, Sexton said, “is foundational for everyone’s health.”

She mentioned that while there are drugs that can help with insomnia, complementary methods of improving sleep also exist. These include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC; the naturally occurring psychoactive compound found in cannabis), behavioral health, acupuncture, yoga and certain herbs and supplements that can help relax the central nervous system.

Sexton stressed the importance of good sleep habits, as the circadian function (the “internal clock” that regulates periods of alertness and sleepiness) plays a crucial role in inflammation and regulating the immune system.

Mental Health and Cognitive Function

Additionally, since a cancer diagnosis can be devastating and trigger stress and anxiety, Sexton said that she encourages patients to find and develop a “stress toolkit” of tools and strategies that they can use to improve stress resilience or the ability to manage stress.

Sexton explained that gut health can have an impact on stress and should be considered when finding complementary methods to manage anxiety.

“The microbiome is really important for our brain and mental health, and cannabis is one of the prime botanicals that can help just calm things down a bit,” Sexton said. “It very much depends on the dose, especially of THC, which can have a biphasic (having two phases) effect on anxiety. So just keep in mind that more is not always better.”

Utilizing the psychoactive compounds in THC may also help patients feel more present and experience a positive mind shift, Sexton explained.

“[Patients should] not forget that the consciousness-altering property of cannabis can be related to the medical value,” she said.

In addition to stress and anxiety, patients with cancer may experience cognitive issues from their cancer treatments, however, integrative medicines may be able to help, Sexton said.

“Often, this comes back. It just takes time and sometimes a little bit of help from integrative medicine, such as using anti-inflammatory [agents] and antioxidants can really help bring the cognitive function back,” she said.

Ultimately, Sexton said that while integrative approaches can help patients throughout their cancer experience, it is essential that they discuss complementary therapies with their health care team.

“It’s always important to talk to your doctors about everything that you’re putting into your body if it’s supplements, or other things that might be considered experimental toward cancer therapy.”

Editor’s note: This program was made possible with support from Daiichi Sankyo Inc.

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