“Holistic” is a brilliant word.
It makes you feel good. It makes you feel complete. It conjures up visions of just-picked vegetables and fresh air.
Like “organic,” though, “holistic” has been tossed around considerably and can refer to just about anything.
Perhaps the yoga teacher next door is holistic. Or maybe it’s your sister-in-law who swore off gluten. Many times “holistic” is paired with another word to form a term like “holistic health.”
But what does “holistic” really mean and how do you know when you have it?
Does it even work?
Or is it just one of those hokey health fads?
In this article let’s talk about what holistic health is and how it can help you on your healing journey. More specifically, let’s see what we can find out about holistic health and breast cancer.
What is holistic health?
Holistic comes from the Greek word “holos” meaning “all.”
Medical dictionaries refer to “holistic health” as the treatment of the whole person, taking into account all the factors that can make a person unwell. Holistic became a buzz word in medicine during the seventies. It’s rise in popularity was accompanied by the growth of health food stores and widespread public interest in organic and natural foods.
Rather than just treating the particular part that’s diseased, holistic health practitioners treat the person as a whole. A holistic approach might include talk about vitamin supplements, spiritual practices, and such — whereas the allopathic practitioner might focus on using prescription drugs and traditional therapies.
Many diseases and conditions seem to be helped with holistic approaches. A breast cancer patient, for example, might need surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to remove the tumor. But changes in diet, emotional support, and massage (for instance) may also help in recovery.
What are examples of holistic health?
Holistic health also has other names: complementary therapy, alternative medicine, integrative medicine, and natural healthcare are examples. You may be surprised to discover that holistic health practices are often taught in medical schools and practiced in many clinics around the country.
Attempts to characterize holistic methods run into trouble, though, since many holistic practices cross over the limits of categories.
Here are five generally recognized types of holistic health practices:
- Alternative medical systems are also called “integrative medicine” and “complementary medicine.” This is the lump-sum category for all health practices that a traditional allopathic physician probably wouldn’t bring up: Oriental practices, for instance, like herbalism and Ayurveda (a life science practice of Indian origin).
- Mind-body interventions offer healing support through biological, psychological, social, and spiritual approaches. These include meditation, nutrition, and support groups.
- Biologically-based therapies use plants or other natural materials medicine. Aromatherapy also falls into this category.
- Manipulative and body-based methods use movement or manipulation of the body to heal or return the body to a better state. Massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic therapy are examples.
- Energy therapies use forms of energy to heal. These include Chi, thermal, or electromagnetic energy. Examples are Healing Touch (HT) and Reiki.
There are no clear-cut definitions or roles for holistic health practices. That’s one reason why you should be careful to ask a holistic health practitioner not just what kind of holistic approach is used … but to describe the treatments that will best suit your needs.
Is using a holistic health approach safe for cancer patients?
So do holistic treatments work or not? Are they a good alternative to conventional medicine? Should holistic health practices be used as an alternative to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery?
Let’s talk about that.
The safety and efficacy of a holistic health approach depends on the malady being treated and the nature of the holistic practice. There are herbs, for example, that are dangerous (even lethal) to consume. There are massage therapies that can leave you hurting more when you leave than when you arrived.
Where can we turn for advice?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) created a branch specifically for studying holistic health. It is known as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
Since its establishment in 1999, the NCCAM has debunked many alternative beliefs (such as ginkgo biloba as a cure for Alzheimer’s) but it has also proven other holistic practices to be effective (like using acupuncture for pain relief in osteoarthritis of the knee).
NCCAM seeks to establish the relative safety of natural products (including their toxicity and interactions with other drugs) as well as to conduct research to understand what alternative practices and products people use and why they use them.
The NCCAM data on holistic health is summarized as follows:
A substantial amount of evidence suggests that some complementary health approaches … may help to manage some cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment.
There are holistic health therapies you can use to complement traditional treatment, but it would be unwise to rely on any alternative approach alone to combat breast cancer or any other serious disease.
To get the best out of an alternative treatment, it’s best to first consult your doctor.
Holistic health practices that may be beneficial to breast cancer patients
Recommended holistic health practices (as an addition to, not as a substitute for, traditional medicine) include these five favorites:
● Yoga helps with flexibility and stress
● Changes in diet can give you energy and support overall health
● Massage therapy can stimulate blood flow and help reduce stress
● Antioxidant foods and supplements can help the body heal
● Acupuncture, chiropractic, and such can help provide relief from some ailments
The U.S. Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine offers an extensive list of alternative treatments and provides specific information sources for each. You can access that list here: OCCAM CAM Therapies List.
Talk over your concerns about holistic health practices with your doctor. Discuss which, if any, would be beneficial for you. You may be surprised at the openness your physician has to holistic ideas.
When combined with conventional medicine, alternative holistic health approaches can help you cope with the side effects of aggressive cancer-fighting to help maintain a stronger, healthier YOU.
But never, ever rely on holistic health practices as your primary means of treating breast cancer. Without a rapid, proper treatment protocol, the cancer can spread beyond your breast and become an even more threatening problem. Get the advice of a qualified cancer doctor and do what it takes to give yourself the best chance of a positive outcome.