Integrative Medicine: An MBC Patient Perspective
According to Oxford Dictionary, integrative medicine "is a form of medical therapy that combines practices and treatments from alternative medicine with conventional medicine." Since cancer treatment can cause a myriad of side effects, many people living with advanced breast cancer explore integrative medicine.
This is especially important since almost all of us will be in lifelong treatment. While that treatment is life-extending, with it comes chronic side effects such as nausea, vomiting, bowel, and digestive issues, insomnia, body pain, fatigue, weight fluctuations, depression, and anxiety.
Experience with integrative medicine
I decided to interview Chrysta Balis, a patient living with metastatic breast cancer, who practices integrative medicine to discover what she does, why she does it, and how it affects her quality of life. Here is a summary of our interview.
Q: Can you tell us what you typically eat in a day?
A: I typically start with water and coffee to ensure I get a 12-14 hour intermittent fasting period. Breakfast is whole grain sprout bread with avocado and hemp hearts OR leftover soup OR a green shake (spinach, baby broccoli, hemp hearts, chia seeds, flaxseed, blueberries, almond milk, 1/4 banana, vegetable protein powder). Lunch is a salad with smoked salmon or other leftover fish. Often a salad of cruciferous veggies and/or quinoa and cabbage. Dinner is salads, roasted veggies, organic chicken or fish, very few healthy carbs (whole grain rice or quinoa) on the side. Snacks include nuts, green teas, berries, fruits, etc. Treats are dark chocolate covered almonds (6-8 max), frozen grapes, and roasted nuts. We are slowly striving for vegetarianism, but this will take time to adjust for an entire family.
Q: Are there foods and drinks that you eat more of, and what do you specifically avoid?
A: I'm now dairy-free. Sugar-free (processed sugar) and I avoid white flours/grains/etc. I have stopped drinking alcohol completely. We've incorporated organics for the dirty dozen veggies and fruits. I try to incorporate green teas, herbal teas, garlic, ginger, broccoli and cauliflower, brazil nuts, flax seeds, hemp hearts, cruciferous veggies, cabbages, etc., and many anti-breast-cancer foods into my daily regimen. No more fast food. No more desserts unless it's a special occasion. Take out from vegetarian restaurants only, and I usually sub noodles for cauliflower rice. No processed foods.
Q: What is your exercise routine like?
A: I started exercising during chemo, and 1.5 months into my eight chemo treatments (halfway through) I hired a virtual personal trainer. We started strength training together 3x per week for an hour each session. Sessions include everything from leg & arm and core conditioning to cardio exercises (squat jumps, burpees, high knees, etc.). I also run on my off days, anywhere from 3-6km 2-3 x a week. I took a five-week break following my mastectomy, but trained throughout radiation, sometimes adjusting my pace depending on energy levels. Post-surgery I started lifting 5-10lbs again (instead of 15-30lbs) to build strength back slowly and avoid lymphedema.
Q: What is your subtype and what is your treatment like?
A:Invasive ductal carcinoma. ER/PR+ (Her2 neg). Mets to the lymph nodes in my mediastinum and supraclavicular lymph nodes. No genetic predisposition to cancer. We opted for an "aggressive" approach because Covid and timing complicated further testing for Mets. Treatment began with: 3 months of chemo (4x AC + Cyclophosphamide followed by 4x Taxol, each at 2-week intervals), Zoladex injections every four weeks. Mastectomy and lymph node dissection. 11/11 lymph nodes from my mastectomy surgery & lymph node dissection came back positive for cancer. 25 radiation therapy treatments to my right pectoral region, neck, armpit, and mediastinum (tomotherapy). Letrozole starting the same time as radiation. Soon to be on CDK 4/6 inhibitor (Kisqali aka Ribociclib).
Q: How long you've been a stage IV patient?
A: I had mets de novo starting April 1, 2020.
Q: What does your meditation practice look like?
A: I meditate typically 1x per day for 15 mins. At my best, 2x a day for 15 mins each. At my worst (post-mastectomy or the latter weeks of radiation), I miss meditation. This is one area that I will hone in on post-treatment when I'm not going to the hospital for treatment daily. I will likely be joining a class on meditation and finishing a book I'm reading about it. I follow a method a relative uses called "Lazy Man Meditation" where you take a relaxed pose, back supported, head hanging comfortably, legs, and arms hanging comfortably.
Options to improve quality of life
While we all have different circumstances and treatments that may help or hinder our ability to incorporate integrative medicine into our lives, there are many options available that may help us live better with this disease.
Doing what feels good for both mind and body
Chrysta does a great job of eating well, exercising regularly, and meditating to feel well as a cancer patient. If you would like to explore these and other options further, please talk with your doctor and ask if your hospital offers these services. At my cancer center, I meet with a dietitian and acupuncturist, as well as an oncology massage therapist. Other clinics often offer discounts to cancer patients, too. Most hospitals also have exercise programs and yoga classes designed for patients undergoing chemotherapy, and some even provide cooking classes. Whatever speaks to you, seek it out! Your body-and mind-will thank you!
Editor’s note: Talk to your healthcare provider about your particular situation as it is best to check with your healthcare team before starting any new supplements, diets, or exercises.
Caregivers: Do you practice self-care?