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Natural Remedies for Chemotherapy Side Effects

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Updated January 29, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Chemotherapy side effects are a common concern among people with cancer. Although chemotherapy aims to destroy cancer cells and stop them from multiplying, it can also damage healthy cells. When healthy cells are damaged, a number of adverse effects may occur.

Learn more about chemotherapy side effects.

Common Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Side effects and their severity vary from patient to patient and depend heavily on the type of dose of chemotherapy. Some common chemotherapy side effects include:

  • anemia
  • fatigue
  • hair loss
  • increased risk for bruising, bleeding, and infection
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • intestinal and stomach problems
  • appetite and weight changes
  • sore mouth, gums, and throat
  • nerve and muscle problems
  • dry and/or discolored skin
  • kidney and bladder irritation
  • sexual and fertility issues

Alternative Medicine and Chemotherapy Side Effects

Research suggests that the following natural remedies and alternative therapies may have some benefit for individuals looking to treat chemotherapy side effects:

1) Acupuncture

At the National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference in 1997, a panel of experts said they considered acupuncture (a needle-based therapy commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine) to be effective in managing chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting. More recently, for a research review published in 2005, researchers sized up 11 clinical trials and found that acupuncture reduced post-chemotherapy vomiting and lessened the severity of post-chemotherapy nausea.

Another study, published in 2007, found that chemotherapy patients receiving acupuncture had significant improvements in general fatigue, physical fatigue, activity, and motivation.

Learn more about acupuncture and cancer treatment.

2) Massage Therapy

Massage may help relieve pain and anxiety and improve sleep among people undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, according to a 2002 study of 41 people.

Another study, published in 2007, examined the effects of five 20-minute massage sessions on 39 women undergoing chemotherapy. Results indicated that massage may significantly reduce nausea, as well as improve mood.

Learn more about massage therapy and cancer.

3) Herbs

A number of studies have shown that ginger may help alleviate stomach upset among people undergoing chemotherapy. In a 2009 study of 644 cancer patients, for instance, those taking a ginger supplement (in addition to standard anti-vomiting medication) three days prior to chemotherapy and three days following their treatment had at least a 40 percent reduction in nausea.

A small study published in 2010 suggests that milk thistle (an herb often used to treat liver problems) may help fight liver inflammation in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Treatment for Chemotherapy Side Effects

The National Cancer Institute urges people undergoing chemotherapy to talk with their doctors about their side effects and how best to manage them.

While some alternative therapies may benefit people undergoing chemotherapy, others may interfere with standard treatment or cause harm when combined with chemotherapy. Therefore, if you're considering the use of alternative medicine in treatment of chemotherapy side effects, it's extremely important to consult your health-care providers.

Sources

Billhult A, Bergbom I, Stener-Victorin E. "Massage relieves nausea in women with breast cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy." J Altern Complement Med. 2007 13(1):53-7.

Ezzo J, Vickers A, Richardson MA, Allen C, Dibble SL, Issell B, Lao L, Pearl M, Ramirez G, Roscoe JA, Shen J, Shivnan J, Streitberger K, Treish I, Zhang G. "Acupuncture-point stimulation for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting." J Clin Oncol. 2005 1;23(28):7188-98.

L. Ryan, C. Heckler, S. R. Dakhil, J. Kirshner, P. J. Flynn, J. T. Hickok, G. R. Morrow. "Ginger for chemotherapy-related nausea in cancer patients: A URCC CCOP randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of 644 cancer patients." Journal of Clinical Oncology 2009 27:15s.

Ladas EJ, Kroll DJ, Oberlies NH, Cheng B, Ndao DH, Rheingold SR, Kelly KM. "A randomized, controlled, double-blind, pilot study of milk thistle for the treatment of hepatotoxicity in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)." Cancer. 2010 15;116(2):506-13.

Molassiotis A, Sylt P, Diggins H. "The management of cancer-related fatigue after chemotherapy with acupuncture and acupressure: a randomised controlled trial." Complement Ther Med. 2007 15(4):228-37.

Smith MC, Kemp J, Hemphill L, Vojir CP. "Outcomes of therapeutic massage for hospitalized cancer patients." Journal of Nursing Scholarship 2002;34(3):257-62.

The American Cancer Society. "Managing Side Effects". November 2009.

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