Call it chemotherapy’s double-edged sword: the same powerful drugs that kill malignant cancer cells also wreak havoc on the rest of your body’s systems. The side effects go beyond hair loss, nausea and fatigue – you may be at risk for a compromised immune system.
In fact, according to Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 14th edition, “Autopsy studies show that most deaths from acute leukemia and half of deaths from lymphoma are caused directly by infection. With more intensive chemotherapy, patients with solid tumors have become more likely to die of infection rather than underlying disease.”
If you are undergoing or have recently completed a course of chemotherapy and radiation, you can take two important steps to boost your immune system and aid recovery.
Diet. A well-balanced diet rich in iron is a natural way to enrich your immune system. Maximize iron absorption by drinking orange or grapefruit juice and adding sliced tomatoes or salsa to your entrée, and avoiding coffee, tea and milk with your meals. Herbs that boost immunity include astragalus, andrographis and ginseng. And a recent study pointed to fish oil as possibly beneficial to people with compromised immune systems.
Exercise. Getting your strength back after cancer treatment is a long process, but exercise can help you feel like your old self again. Harvard Medical School notes that “even though a direct beneficial link hasn’t been established, it’s reasonable to consider moderate regular exercise to be a beneficial arrow in the quiver of healthy living, a potentially important means for keeping your immune system healthy along with the rest of your body.”
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, the typical family caregiver is between 35 and 64 years old, has a spouse or partner, works full or part-time, is caring for a family member or relative, lives near or with the person they care for and provides from 8 to 40 hours of care per week. Care giving can be a rewarding experience but it can also be isolating and draining.
To maintain the emotional and physical energy needed to care for a loved one, family cancer caregivers need to take care of themselves. The body-mind-spirit emphasis that is the hallmark of Issels’ integrative approach to alternative cancer treatment can benefit cancer caregivers as much as the cancer patients they care for. As noted in our previous post, working with a compassionate cancer treatment team, asking for and accepting help from family and friends, taking regular breaks from care giving to nurture your own spirit and seeking support from caregiver support groups can help family cancer caregivers cope with the challenge of care giving.
Today, we offer additional advice on how to address some of the most common issues faced by family cancer caregivers:
Respecting patient rights. Particularly when they are caring for a family member, caregivers become understandably invested in treatment decisions. Offer your personal insights when asked but remember that each cancer patient has the right to choose his own path.This can be particularly difficult for adult children caring for parents with cancer. As people age, perspective changes. Older cancer patients may prefer alternative cancer treatments over standard medical care. Or they may choose not to prolong their lives past a certain point.Be open to alternative cancer therapies. The success of alternative cancer treatments in achieving long-term remission of many types of cancer often surprises people whose only experience is with traditional Western medicine. Encourage your loved ones to make informed decisions but respect their right to choose.
At some point in our lives, most of us will become caregivers for a family member, many of us for a spouse, parent or child stricken with cancer. Family caregivers must deal with myriad medical, financial and emotional issues. As the direct line of communication to other concerned family members, family caregivers must juggle not only the needs of the patient and their own concerns but those of other family members while still managing the daily life responsibilities they have to their own families.
Despite their dedication to family members struggling with cancer, family caregivers can find the weight of responsibility, the emotional toll and the logistical juggling required to accommodate competing demands on their time and energy challenging if not overwhelming. Working with a caring cancer team of compassionate professionals, asking other family members and friends of the patient to lend a hand, joining a caregiver support group and educating yourself about what to expect and possible treatment options, including advanced alternative cancer treatments, can help ease the burden of care giving.
Below we offer advice on how to address some of the key issues family cancer caregivers face:
Minimizing pain and discomfort. Your closeness to your family members may make you more aware of the level of discomfort or pain he is feeling. Many cancer patients are also more likely to confide how they are truly feeling to a family member than to medical personnel. Your perceptions and understanding of your family member’s facial expressions and behavior patterns can provide valuable information to his cancer treatment team. Don’t be shy about sharing your observations and opinions.
One of the stalwarts of the body’s immune system may actually aid the spread of cancer cells, according to a new Canadian study. White blood cells, or leukocytes, are immune system responders that defend the body against infectious disease and foreign substances. Produced in bone marrow, five distinct types of white blood cells circulate throughout the human body, including in the blood and lymphatic systems.
One way in which white blood cells protect the body from infection is by forming defensive DNA “webs” called Neutrophils Extracellular Traps. These webs trap harmful pathogens, but scientists at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada found that they also trap cancer cells circulating in the body, causing them to activate; thereby increasing the opportunity for cancer to metastasize and spread.
Perhaps more hopeful, researchers also found that disrupting the DNA web can halt the growth and spread of cancer, offering new cancer treatment avenues to explore. The first research to discover this method of cancer metastasis, findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation and could jump start new immunotherapy cancer treatments.
In an announcement, lead researcher Dr. Lorenzo Ferri, MUHC director of Thoracic Surgery and the Upper Gastrointestinal Cancer Program, said:
“Medications already exist that are being used for other non-cancer diseases, which may prevent this mechanism of cancer spread or metastasis.”
A disturbing new study has found that the majority of childhood cancer survivors who undergo chemotherapy have a high risk of developing chronic, life-threatening diseases as adults. Equally disturbing is the fact that these problems go undetected until they reach advanced stages, placing childhood cancer survivors at critical risk. The unfairness of the situation is not lost on childhood cancer survivors.
In a landmark study of more than 1,7000 adults who were patients at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, two-thirds of chemotherapy patients developed chronic, life-threatening conditions as adults. Of those long-deferred chemo side effects, 90% of heart conditions and 55% of lunch problems had gone undetected by the individuals’ healthcare providers until revealed by the study.
Researchers traced part of the problem to failure to transfer medical records between pediatricians and general practitioners as childhood cancer survivors entered their adult years.
“Survivors of childhood cancer, once they graduate from pediatric programs, they’re going into a community where medical providers are not going to be aware of their unique health risks,” Dr. Melissa Hudson, the study’s co-author told CBS News. (Click the link to watch the report by Dr. John LaPook.)
With nearly 400,000 childhood cancer survivors in the U.S. alone, these delayed side-effects of chemotherapy present a serious health threat that has many questioning the use of traditional cancer treatment methods which bludgeon the body with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Growing concern about the effects of chemotherapy have more people considering the advanced alternative cancer treatments offered at Issels Integrative Oncology cancer treatment centers that work to build up the body’s immune system instead of tearing it down.
Cancer researchers have been successful in using the body’s own immune system to deliver killing toxins directly to cancer cells to kill them. In what Duke Cancer Institute researches describe as “smart bomb” therapy, they have designed an antibody that binds only to certain breast cancer tumor cells, delivering its toxic payload directly into tumor cells while leaving healthy cells untouched and intact. The innovative cancer cell therapy effectively kills cancer cells from the inside out.
Lead Duke researcher, Dr. Kimberly Blackwell, director of Duke’s breast cancer program, reported at the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology that the new smart bomb therapy was successful in use on patients with advanced and metastic breast cancer. Using targeted cell therapy to deliver toxins to a specific target spared patients many of the debilitating side effects typically associated with chemotherapy. (Click here for therapy specifics on Time.com.) Currently, the Duke therapy only works on HER2-positive breast tumors, but Blackwell and her team hope to expand the treatment’s effectiveness to other tumors.
Cancer cell therapy is considered one of the most promising developments in immunotherapy cancer treatments. However, Dr. Blackwell believes that targeted cancer cell therapy could prove most effective when combined with integrative immunotherapy that strengthens the entire immune system. She told Time she believes her smart bomb therapy was so effective “because we spared the immune system.” Her goal is to create immune-assisted cancer treatments that harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer without weakening that system with chemotherapy, eventually phasing out chemotherapy altogether.
“I’m convinced that my patients’ immune systems are fighting cancer as much as anything we can give them to battle the cancer,” Dr. Blackwell told Time.
For more than 60 years, Issels’ cancer treatments have pioneered the use of integrative immunotherapy and targeted cancer cell therapy to fight advanced-stage cancers with unique success.