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What's in CAM?

February 8, 2012
by Rachel Pappas, founder of

When you meet cancer square in the eye, you typically become open to hearing about practically anything out there that might help you heal fully. That’s why more survivors are looking into complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM), and as they try it, are giving it a shout. Some doctors are listening. The National Institute of Health is paying attention too. Through their Office of Cancer Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, NIH is funneling millions into researching acupuncture, reiki, herbs and other less-than-conventional practices. 

Dr. Deana Attai, a breast surgeon in Burbank California, is one of the traditional practitioners who believes in CAM and leads her breast cancer patients to it. It’s mainly to help them cope with side effects of treatments, ease their worries and stress, and help them see there is plenty they can do on their own to pick themselves back up.

Mind-body techniques are top on her list—healing practices like meditation, that are based on the premise: the mind affects the body’s response to cancer.
“In addition to ‘formal’ meditation, I recommend guided imagery, yoga and tai-chi. I consider these part exercise / part meditation —I often call it ‘meditative exercise,’” she says. “It can have a very calming and relaxing effect on the mind, which translates to a calming effect on the body. But all of us, whether we’ve had cancer or not, need to find ways to unwind, and I've seen some amazing effects from these techniques, both in myself and my patients.”
Acupuncture and reiki are gaining respect too—otherwise known as ‘energy medicine.’ It’s based on the belief that our bodies have energy fields, and energy or “chi” needs to flow through them freely for healing.

Dr. Attai recommends acupuncture for two reasons. “One is to control symptoms like nausea, hot flashes, and specific pain. However, it also helps with relaxation and focusing. Reiki can have a similar calming effect, obviously without tiny needles.”

Food is medicine—or so it’s been said, and nutrition is an integral part of the CAM piece. A key word here is “balance” … putting different fruits and vegetables into your shopping cart.

"’All different colors on your plate’ is something I say a lot. Most foods in moderation is fine,” says Dr. Attai. “Though there are some that really have no role in anyone’s diet, mainly processed and fast foods.”
And don’t cut out the fat, just think “low fat” or “good fat” (unsaturated). Some of these foods, like fish, avocados, walnuts and olive oil, may help reduce inflammation and could play a role in preventing cancer or recurrence.

But you get only so much from what’s on your plate, which is why supplements are another piece of the CAM puzzle. Some of the basics, especially for you as a breast cancer survivor, should be calcium, vitamin D, and omega 3. A few places to buy rigorously tested products are, Village Green Apothecary, MOM’s, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods.

While you see these supplements lining more retailers’ shelves on the Western hemisphere, others are not quite as commonplace, though becoming more so. They are Chinese herbs, a staple of the traditional eastern treatment of cancer. Chinese herbology is based on the principle of Fu Zheng Gu Ben. "Fu Zheng" means strengthening what is correct. "Gu Ben" means regeneration and repair.
“I believe in herbs as one form of treatment to help build ourselves back up and to maintain balance, and I take a lot of them myself. But I do defer to the patient's medical oncologist and integrative oncologist to know what they can and can’t take at what point in their treatments, as some supplements should not be taken with chemotherapy,” says Dr. Attai.
True disease prevention is not always predictable, but you can at least grab onto the reins moving forward, through proper diet, including supplements; stress management; mind and body exercise.
Rachel Pappas is the founder of

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