Alaska News

Complementary therapies: While chemo and radiation attack cancer cells, these therapies help alleviate side effects

Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are standard cancer treatments. But while they kill cancer cells and prevent their spread throughout the body, these treatments also cause a series of side effects that deplete a patient's energy and leave them feeling ill and weak.

That's where complementary treatment comes into play. Yoga, acupuncture, massage and other complementary therapies may help alleviate some of the side effects that accompany cancer treatment, as well as improve the patient's overall sense of well-being.

"There is a wide array of therapies that a lot of conventional providers haven't been trained to use, but are increasingly becoming more mainstream," said Dr. Cora Spaulding, an integrative medicine and family physician and owner of Synergy Integrated Medicine in Anchorage, which will begin providing integrative medicine consultations on Nov. 1. "The challenge is to customize these therapies to fit the preferences of the patient, and any other constraints that they might have."

Before trying any treatment, make sure to check with your medical provider and discuss any precautions you should take.


"Yoga can be infinitely therapeutic," said Margi Clifford, a licensed professional counselor, registered yoga instructor and owner of Yoga for Mental Health in Anchorage. While undergoing treatment, classes with a mindfulness or meditation component can help promote relaxation and reduce stress while promoting gentle exercise. Yoga also helps patients become more in tune with the changes their body experienced as a result of treatment.

"Managing cancer isn't just managing the growth of cells in your body, but managing what body you're left with," Clifford said. "It reinforces people's sense of themselves."

Diet modification

Good nutrition isn't always given enough attention when it comes to treating cancer, Spaulding said. Modifying the diet to ensure that patients are getting adequate nutrients such as protein, fruits and vegetables and fiber, can be helpful in elevating energy levels and easing treatment side effects such as constipation and weight loss.


There's even growing evidence that following a ketogenic diet, which is low in carbohydrates and high in healthy fats, can improve the outcomes of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as reduce the side effects associated with treatment, said cancer researcher and licensed professional counselor Lyn Freeman, Ph.D., owner of Mind Matters Research LLC in Anchorage.


Aromatherapy uses essential oils to promote relaxation, prevent or reduce nausea, or alleviate some of the other symptoms associated with chemotherapy, Spaulding said. Oils can be used topically in conjunction with a massage, or diffused into the air.


Massage promotes relaxation, short-term pain relief and a general sense of well-being, said Jamie Elswick, licensed massage therapist and owner of Northern Raven Therapeutics in Anchorage. Cancer patients should seek comfort massage that utilizes mild to moderate pressure, rather than deep-tissue massage, which can take energy away from the patient or cause bruising due to low blood cell counts.

Massage can also have a positive effect on the patient's body image.

"It can really give the patient a light at the end of the tunnel that their body can feel good again, can feel whole again," she said.


The use of botanicals and herbal supplements can help alleviate many different side effects of cancer treatments, Spaulding said. But some supplements may interfere with the effectiveness of treatment, so check with your medical provider prior to taking any.


Acupuncture can help alleviate side effects such as nausea, gastrointestinal issues, vomiting and fatigue, as well as improve a patient's a sense of well-being, said Rande Lucas, a licensed acupuncturist with Alpenglow Acupuncture LLC in Anchorage. Acupuncture also calms the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-fight response, helping to decrease a patient's anxiety and stress.

The acupuncturist inserts thin needles into precise points on the patient's body to release the flow of energy, called Qi; these insertion points vary depending on the location of the cancer and the patient's symptoms. Lucas said most patients have weekly treatments, and the result is less reliance on medications to help control side effects.

"What I find is it actually has a cumulative effect, so over time when they come back, they have (fewer) symptoms over all," she said. "They still have it, but don't seem to have as much trouble with it."


Chemotherapy and radiation often cause extreme fatigue, so it seems counterintuitive to exercise during treatment. But exercise actually helps combat fatigue, can improve a patient's overall quality of life and lead to better sleep. Providence Alaska Medical Center offers a 10-week oncology rehabilitation program that utilizes a mix of aerobics, muscle strengthening and relaxation, but even exercise that requires little energy expenditure, such as Tai Chi or yoga, can be beneficial, Spaulding said.

For a list of breast cancer resources and support in Alaska click here.

This article first appeared in the 2015 edition of Alaska Pulse magazine. Contact Pulse editor Jamie Gonzales at

Amy Newman

Amy Newman is an Anchorage free-lance writer who’s written for Alaska Baby & Child and other Alaska publications.