Alternative Therapies for Cancer Pain: Exploring Holistic Health Approaches

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Aug 10, 2022
Last updated:
May 21, 2024

Cancer is a formidable opponent, affecting over 162,000 Australians in 2022 alone. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare predicts that the annual number of cancer cases diagnosed may surpass 200,000 by 2033. Dealing with cancer requires a mix of treatments because it's complex, and each person's experience is different.

Many cancer patients deal with pain and other side effects from their treatments. While traditional medicine helps, some offer alternative therapies for extra support.

These alternatives go beyond regular medicine, including holistic practices and combined therapies. They aim to tackle not just the physical side of cancer but also the emotional, mental, and spiritual parts of it.

Alongside easing cancer pain, people explore these therapies to help with treatment side effects and improve their overall well-being. While some think about using medical cannabis, many are interested in other alternative treatments tailored to them.

Let's explore alternative cancer pain and treatment therapies, along with key statistics. We'll discuss their effectiveness, safety, and role alongside regular medical care. Our goal is to give you the information you need to make smart choices on your cancer journey.

Cancer in Australia By The Numbers

Cancer is a significant health concern in Australia, affecting thousands of individuals each year. 

Here's a look at the statistics:

  • Around 162,000 new cancer cases were diagnosed in 2022, with almost an equal split between males and females.
  • In the same year, about 50,000 people lost their lives to cancer.
  • The chances of surviving at least five years after diagnosis are 70%.
  • By the end of 2016, almost 470,000 people were living with cancer.
  • One out of every two Aussies will face cancer by age 85.
  • Cancer ranks high among causes of death, with nearly 50,000 estimated deaths in 2019.
  • The number of new cancer cases each year might exceed 200,000 by 2033.
  • From 2000 to 2023, the rate of new cancer cases rose while the death rate decreased.
  • Around $252 million was invested in cancer research between 2016 and 2018.

These numbers underline how cancer impacts many Australians and why ongoing research and care are crucial.

Understanding Pain

Pain is a complicated thing—it's different for everyone and can affect how we feel physically, emotionally, and mentally. When it comes to cancer, pain can come from various places and show up in different ways, making it unique for each person.

What is Cancer Pain?

Cancer pain happens when nerves in the body react to cancerous tumours or treatments. Unlike sudden pain from an injury, cancer pain often sticks around and changes over time, making it tricky for both patients and doctors to manage.

The intensity and type of cancer pain vary from person to person. It depends on things like the type of cancer, how advanced it is, where it's located, and how much pain someone can tolerate. People may describe their pain in many ways, like achy, dull, tingling, burning, throbbing, stabbing, or sharp.

Managing cancer pain isn't just about easing physical discomfort—it's also about addressing the emotions and thoughts that come with it. By understanding what causes cancer pain and finding ways to help each person cope, healthcare providers can make life better for those living with cancer.

Symptoms of Cancer Pain

Cancer pain appears in various ways and can be described differently by each person. They might use words like achy, dull, tingling, burning, throbbing, stabbing, or sharp to explain their feelings. The pain might be in one spot or spread over different body parts.

It's important to know that while many people with cancer experience pain, not everyone does. Some may start feeling pain after treatments like chemotherapy, while others might feel it more intensely.

Nerve Pain (Neuropathic)

Neuropathic pain happens when nerves are damaged or not working right, causing unusual feelings like shooting or burning pain, numbness, or tingling. It can come from tumours pressing on nerves, chemotherapy side effects, or nerve damage from surgery.

Sudden Pain (Acute)

Acute pain shows up suddenly and is usually because of tissue damage or inflammation. It might happen after surgeries, injuries, or when tumours press on things inside the body.

Persistent Pain (Chronic)

Chronic pain sticks around for a long time and can be constant or come and go. It's often from ongoing tissue damage, nerve problems, or emotional issues like stress or sadness. Chronic cancer pain can really affect how people live and need careful treatment.

Intense Episodes (Breakthrough)

Breakthrough pain is intense and sudden, even if someone is already taking pain medicine. It can happen during movement or changes in medication.

Distant Pain (Referred)

Referred pain is felt somewhere far from where the problem is. Tumours can send pain signals through nerves to other parts of the body.

Muscle and Tissue Pain (Soft Tissue)

Soft tissue pain comes from muscles, ligaments, or tendons. It's because of tumours growing into these tissues or causing muscle spasms.

Phantom Sensations (Phantom)

Phantom pain is felt in a body part that's been taken away, like after an amputation. The brain still thinks the body part is there and sends pain signals, which can be hard to manage.

Bone

Bone pain happens when cancer spreads to the bones and starts to destroy them. It feels deep, dull, or throbbing, making moving around tough.

Specific Area Pain (Localised)

Localised pain is in one specific spot, often caused by tumours growing there or pressing on nerves. How bad it is and what it feels like can vary from person to person.

Organ Pain (Visceral)

Visceral pain comes from organs deep inside the body and can feel like a deep ache or pressure. It happens when tumours grow into or block organs, making people feel sick or sweaty.

Understanding all the different kinds of cancer pain helps doctors figure out the best ways to treat it, making life easier for those living with cancer.

What Is Chemotherapy-Related Nausea and Vomiting?

Chemotherapy is a powerful cancer treatment, but it often comes with unwelcome side effects. One of the most common and challenging side effects is nausea and vomiting. This discomfort can occur shortly after treatment, linger for days, or even happen before treatment begins.

Here's a breakdown of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting:

  • Acute: Within 24 hours after treatment starts
  • Delayed: More than 24 hours after chemotherapy
  • Anticipatory: Before chemotherapy treatment begins
  • Chronic: Nausea and vomiting that persists for days after treatment ends

These side effects can vary in intensity and how they affect each person. Some people may feel queasy, while others may vomit frequently, making it difficult to eat or drink.

Preventing nausea and vomiting before they start can help. Some patients find relief by consuming alternative medicine beforehand to combat the nausea. 

Working closely with healthcare providers to manage these side effects can make the cancer treatment journey more manageable.

Symptoms of Chemotherapy-Related Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting can be triggered by many factors, including smells, taste, anxiety, pain, motion, and changes in the body caused by inflammation or stomach irritation.

Chemotherapy drugs are classified into four categories—high, moderate, low, or minimal—based on the likelihood that the patient will experience nausea and vomiting. Patients don’t always have a choice as to what chemotherapy drugs they’ll receive, but there are several ways to get relief after treatment.

What Causes Chemotherapy-Related Nausea and Vomiting

Chemotherapy can make patients feel nauseous and cause vomiting, which can be challenging to deal with. Let's take a look at what causes these unpleasant side effects:

1. Chemotherapy Drugs

The kind of chemotherapy drugs, how much you get, and how often you receive them all affect how likely you are to feel nauseous or throw up. Some drugs, like cisplatin and doxorubicin, are more likely to cause vomiting than others.

2. Individual Patient Characteristics

Things like your age, gender, and whether you've had motion sickness before can make a difference in how you react to chemotherapy. You might have more intense symptoms if you're more prone to motion sickness or feel anxious.

3. Treatment Setting and Administration Route

Where you get your chemotherapy, like in a hospital or at home, and how the drugs are given, whether through a drip, by mouth, or as a shot, can also affect how sick you feel.

4. Treatment Combination and Timing

Sometimes, you get more than one chemotherapy drug at the same time. How these drugs are given and when can change how bad the nausea and vomiting are. Some medicines might cause delayed nausea and vomiting, which happens after treatment.

5. Patient-Specific Risk Factors

Having other health issues like stomach problems or taking certain medications along with chemotherapy can increase the chance of feeling sick. Things like smoking or drinking alcohol can also make symptoms worse.

6. Psychological and Emotional Factors

Being anxious or feeling down can make nausea and vomiting worse. Sometimes, just the thought of getting chemotherapy can make you feel sick before treatment even starts.

7. Gastrointestinal Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs can irritate the lining of your stomach and intestines, causing problems like diarrhoea, constipation, and inflammation. This irritation can lead to nausea and vomiting.

Knowing what can trigger nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy helps doctors find ways to prevent or ease these side effects. They can use different medications, therapies, and techniques to make treatment more bearable for you.

Managing Cancer Pain and Chemotherapy-Related Nausea and Vomiting

To help patients deal with cancer pain and chemotherapy side effects, doctors use a mix of different treatments that are personalised for each person. 

Here are some of the critical treatments they use:

Pharmacologic Interventions:

  1. Analgesic Medications (Painkillers): These are drugs that help relieve pain. Some common ones are opioids, like morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl. Doctors may also use other medicines like anti-inflammatory medications, antidepressants, and steroids to help manage pain and reduce side effects.
  2. Antiemetic Agents (Anti-Nausea Medications):  These medicines are given to prevent or treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. They include drugs like ondansetron, granisetron, metoclopramide, and corticosteroids. They work by blocking certain chemicals in the body that cause these symptoms.
  3. Prophylactic Medications (Preventive Medications): Some patients take these medicines before chemotherapy to stop nausea and vomiting before they start. Doctors often use a combination of different drugs to prevent these symptoms.

These medications help patients feel better during cancer treatment by managing pain and reducing side effects like nausea and vomiting.

Alternative Interventions:

  1. Acupuncture: This practice involves putting thin needles into specific body parts to help reduce pain and nausea. It can be helpful for cancer patients going through treatment.
  2. Massage Therapy: This is when someone gently massages the body to help relax muscles and reduce tension. It can make cancer patients feel better by easing pain, anxiety, and nausea.
  3. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): MBSR includes activities like meditation and yoga to help people stay focused on the present moment and deal with stress. It's been found to help with pain, anxiety, and nausea during cancer treatment.
  4. Exercise and Physical Therapy: Regular exercise and physical activities can improve cancer patients' feelings. Physical therapy, stretching and strengthening exercises can also help with pain and other side effects.
  5. Nutritional Support: Eating healthy foods and staying hydrated can keep cancer patients strong and help them tolerate treatment better. Sometimes, dietary changes or supplements can also help with nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
  6. Psychotherapy and Counselling: Talking to a therapist or counsellor can help cancer patients cope with the emotional challenges of their diagnosis and treatment. Techniques like relaxation training and supportive counselling can make a big difference.

When doctors combine these different treatments, they can make a big difference in how patients feel during cancer treatment. Patients and their families must work closely with their healthcare team to get the support they need.

Deciding The Best Approach

There are many options for managing cancer pain, nausea, and vomiting, ranging from traditional medications to alternative therapies like medical cannabis. When deciding on the best approach, doctors consider various factors:

  • How the patient describes their pain
  • Their medical history
  • Physical examination findings
  • Results of tests and imaging
  • The type of cancer they have

Traditional medications, often opioids, can help manage pain but may come with side effects. Many patients explore non-opioid options for pain relief.

Alternative treatments include acupuncture, massage, hypnosis, and physical and therapeutic therapies. Research suggests that certain alternative medicines may help combat nausea and vomiting and may also relieve nerve pain, the most common type of cancer-related pain.

There are many alternatives to pharmaceuticals for cancer pain and chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. Care plans should be individualised, and patients can ask about a medical cannabis prescription if they think it may help alleviate their symptoms.

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