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Integrative Medicine and Childhood and Adolescent Cancer

Integrative medicine includes natural, mind-body approaches to care for patients and families. In childhood and adolescent cancer, integrative therapies may help manage symptoms and side effects.

Integrative medicine is not used to treat the cancer itself but may work with cancer treatment to improve a patient’s quality of life. There is no evidence that any integrative medicine approach can cure cancer or cause it to go into remission.

  • Research studies show that some integrative health approaches may help manage symptoms and side effects.
  • In other cases, the evidence is more limited.
  • Some integrative therapies may interfere with medical treatment or cause bad reactions.
  • Always check with the care team before using any integrative therapy even if you used it before your child’s cancer diagnosis.
Teen sits in a window with eyes closed, meditating.

Relaxation, deep breathing, and meditation include a variety of strategies that decrease the effects of stress on the mind and body.

What Are Integrative

Integrative therapies fall into 3 main categories, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

  • Natural products
  • Mind and body practices
  • Other practices such as whole medical systems

Natural Products

Natural products include herbs, vitamins and minerals, probiotic products, and other dietary supplements. There is very little data about combining these products with conventional chemotherapy in children.

These products are not recommended for children and teens during cancer treatment. They could cause cancer treatments not to work as well. They may cause allergies or other adverse events. Children’s small size and developing organs make them more vulnerable than adults. A weakened immune system can also increase risk.

You are encouraged to discuss questions about specific supplements with your child’s doctor. 

Mind and Body Practices

Mind and body practices include:

Mind and body practices can often help children with symptoms such as worry and stress. Most are low risk. But always check with first with your child’s doctor.

Other Practices

Some integrative approaches don’t fit into either category. These include traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (traditional medicine from India). 

A patient's hand touches guitar strings

Research studies show that some therapies may help children and teens during cancer treatment.

What Are Benefits of Integrative Therapies?

  • Meditation, guided imagery, and yoga may decrease pain, nausea, and vomiting. 
  • Acupuncture can lessen nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.
  • Music, art, and play allow kids to express emotions, develop better coping skills, and have fewer side effects. 

Integrative therapies may also help with:

Some ways that different therapies might act include:

  • Improving positive feelings and sense of control
  • Decreasing worry and stress
  • Providing distraction from pain and other physical symptoms
  • Improving blood flow
  • Reducing swelling and inflammation
  • Influencing chemical processes and nerve signals
  • Belief that the therapy will work (placebo effect)

Risks of Integrative Therapies in Children with Cancer

Many types of integrative therapies are safe and effective for children with cancer. But families need to take them as seriously as they would a traditional treatment or medication. 

Just because you can buy a product over the counter, does not mean it is safe. 

Specific risks of integrative therapies include:

  • Supplements may contain substances not included on the label that could be harmful.
  • Supplements may not have dose information for children.
  • While receiving cancer treatments, skin may be weak and more sensitive to anything put on the skin (oils, lotions) or pressure applied to the skin (massage).
  • Specific diets that limit certain foods may cause weight loss or make it hard for children to get nutrients needed for growth and development.

Substances ingested or absorbed through the skin:

  • Can enter the blood stream and affect a wide range of body functions.
  • Can interact with other medications and treatments to make them less effective or cause health problems.

Seek a Qualified Integrative Health Provider

Integrative therapies should be given by a qualified health professional with appropriate certifications and licenses. 

A provider should also have experience working with children with cancer.

Talk with the Care Team About Integrative Therapies

Families are encouraged to talk with their care team about integrative therapies. 

The medical team can help families:

  • Explore benefits of integrative care.
  • Identify potential risks.
  • Monitor the therapy to see if it helps.
  • Watch for problems that might occur.

Questions to Ask

  • What symptoms does this therapy treat?
  • What is the evidence that it works?
  • Has it been used in children with cancer and in what age groups?
  • What are the instructions for use (dose, frequency)?
  • What are the potential risks and side effects?
  • How might it interfere with current cancer care and treatment?
  • Is it safe to try at this time?

Reviewed: June 2021