When Maureen Peltier, 76, received chemotherapy for her advanced ovarian cancer several years ago, she found that guided imagery helped her cope with the unpleasant side effects of the treatment. “Every time I felt nauseous or exhausted, I would close my eyes and visualize the drugs as little smart bombs traveling through my body to find and kill my cancer cells,” says Peltier, a retired attorney in Houston.
It’s a strategy she returns to when she feels anxious or unsure that her cancer will return. Sometimes she imagines an army of female soldiers wandering through her body, attacking stray cancer cells. Other times, she imagines water flowing through her veins, flushing out toxins. Today, she says these exercises have helped her cope better with her illness.
“Even when it doesn’t, it’s helped me keep a positive attitude because I feel like I have some control over the process,” she says. “It has given me the confidence that I can handle anything, even the unknown.”
Research shows that at least half of all women diagnosed with ovarian cancer turn to complementary therapies. These may include herbs, supplements, relaxation techniques such as meditation or guided imagery, or strategies such as acupuncture or massage.
Cancer doctors once dismissed these complementary therapies as quack treatments. Today, most doctors recognize that they can play a valuable role in treatment, says Rachel Grisham, MD, a medical oncologist who specializes in ovarian cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The key, she emphasizes, is for people to work closely with their healthcare team to ensure that the therapies they use do not interfere with medical treatments such as chemotherapy.
“They can be very helpful in combating side effects of cancer, such as fatigue, anxiety, and pain,” says Larissa Meyer, MD, associate professor of gynecologic oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “They can also help relieve stress, which we know can be a driver of cancer growth.”
Acupuncture. With this technique, an acupuncturist inserts thin needles into certain pressure points in your body. It can help with side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea, fatigue, and numbness in the hands and feet, says Meyer. There hasn’t been much research on this topic, but a small study has shown this to be true. “I’m a big believer in it, even though we still don’t fully understand how it works,” she says.
Dietary supplements. It is not recommended to take any form of supplement during chemotherapy without talking to your doctor because it could interfere with treatment, Meyer points out. Even after you’re done with chemotherapy, she recommends always talking to your oncologist to make sure a supplement is safe. If your cancer center has an integrative medicine clinic, talk to someone there as well. Some of the supplements you may hear about include:
- Quercetin. This substance occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables such as apples, onions, red grapes, cherries, raspberries and citrus fruits. It is also found in black and green tea. There is some data showing that it can slow tumor growth.
- Scutellaria baicalensis Georgia. Laboratory studies have shown that this Chinese herb can limit the growth of cancer cells, including ovarian cancer.
- Wheat germ extract. This supplement was developed by a Hungarian chemist in the 1990s. It should not be confused with wheat germ oil. It may help certain chemotherapy drugs better treat ovarian cancer.
- Vitamin D. The sunshine vitamin is touted to prevent certain cancers, including ovarian cancer. But a review of 17 studies published in 2020 found there is no evidence it reduces your chances of getting ovarian cancer or gives you better chances of survival.
- Turmeric. This spice contains curcumin, a powerful antioxidant. Laboratory studies suggest it may have cancer-fighting properties, but other studies have found it may interfere with the action of some chemotherapy drugs.
Yoga And tai chi. These relaxation-based exercise therapies can help you better tolerate the treatment. One study found that women who did just one 15-minute yoga session before chemotherapy treatment reported less anxiety and felt more relaxed. Another study of women with ovarian or breast cancer found that ten weekly yoga classes reduced fatigue, depression and anxiety in patients.
Relaxation exercises. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or guided imagery can help relieve the stress caused by your ovarian cancer. They can also help you manage treatment better, Grisham says. “I often advise patients to use these types of exercises to help them relax while they wait for chemotherapy treatments or for the results of an imaging test or scan,” she says. A few to try include:
- Abdominal breathing. Take a deep enough breath to feel your belly expand and then hold for a few seconds. Exhale slowly. Repeat several times.
- Mantra meditation. In this form of meditation you focus on a word or sound, also called a mantra, such as ‘peace’ or ‘love’. Don’t worry if your mind wanders. Gently bring it back to the present moment. The goal is to simply relax your mind so that it stays in the present, rather than jumping from worry to worry.
- Guided images. As you do your belly breathing, imagine a peaceful scene or an environment that brings you joy, such as your favorite beach.
If you are interested in additional therapy, contact your doctor. Even something that seems completely safe can interfere with your cancer treatment. They can also tell you whether there is research that supports this for the therapy. Many hospitals and cancer centers also have an integrative medicine department. It will work with you to find safe and effective therapies. Also, don’t be afraid to bring up this topic. Your doctor will be happy to answer your questions and concerns so you can receive the best care possible.