Integrative oncology helps people feel their best during cancer treatment

October 18, 2022 in Complementary & Integrative Medicine  •  By Michael Scott, ND, MSA
integrative oncology

We talked with Dr. Chad Aschtgen, ND, FABNO, and Dr. Erica Joseph, ND, LAC, FABNO, two of the physicians at Seattle Integrative Oncology, about integrative cancer care. Dr. Aschtgen, founder of Seattle Integrative Oncology, is a board certified expert in naturopathic oncology. He received his doctorate in naturopathic medicine from Bastyr University and is an active researcher and frequent lecturer and writer on topics in the field.

Dr. Joseph is a board certified naturopathic oncologist. She received her doctorate in naturopathic medicine, master’s in acupuncture, and bachelor’s degree in psychology and biology from Bastyr University. Dr. Joseph is the president of the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians and frequently teaches classes on a variety of cancer-related topics.

 PinnacleCare (PC): What is integrative or naturopathic oncology?

Dr. Chad Aschtgen (CA): We work closely with conventional oncologists and help patients with nutrition, symptom management, and medication management. We’re another part of their cancer treatment team helping them feel their best, despite the fact they’re undergoing cancer treatment. We make sure their care is well-rounded by offering support in the areas of nutrition, sleep management, and exercise. Additionally, we help patients ask the right questions of their current oncology providers to help them manage and feel in control of their own treatment.

PC: What services does your practice provide?

Dr. Erica Joseph (EJ): We work alongside the patient’s conventional oncology team to make their journey as smooth as possible and reduce stress and difficulties they may experience during treatment.

Care looks different from person to person. It depends on the type of cancer and treatment. During our initial consultation, we go through the patient’s medical and social history and talk about the types of therapies they’re currently undergoing. Next, we answer questions around nutrition and supplementation. We then provide recommendations for appropriate therapies based on their symptoms and side effects, as well as putting together an optimal, preventative nutritional plan.

We also review the supplements patients are taking and may add to or remove supplements to enhance the effectiveness of treatment, manage side effects, and ensure patients aren’t deficient in specific nutrients. Sometimes we do additional testing that tells us about an individual’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients and whether they can do so efficiently and effectively. This allows us to target intestinal inflammation through diet and supplementation.

PC: What kind of recommendations do you make around sleep, stress, and exercise?

EJ: Those recommendations are also very individualized. Many studies highlight the benefits of exercise both during and after cancer treatment. We talk with patients about intensity recommendations, heart rate variability, and heart rate zones for them to aim for. We also help them create an exercise schedule and determine what types of exercise works best for their situation.

Around stress management, we recommend a variety of activities, including meditation, journaling, and spending time with loved ones or out in nature.

Sleep management is one of the most common things we talk about, especially sleep hygiene. This includes making sure the environment is favorable for sleep, minimizing screen time, and getting lots of natural light exposure early in the day. We also recommend supplements that have a sedating effect after a thorough review of the patient’s medications to make sure there are no interactions.

PC: Do you work with patients after they are finished treatment or in remission?

EJ: Around 20% of our patients come to us after they’ve finished their oncology care because they’re free of disease and are looking to prevent a reoccurrence of cancer. A lot of our patients, especially our breast cancer patients, are treated with some form of endocrine therapy by their medical oncologist. This decreases the amount of estrogen circulating in the body, which causes a great number of side effects.

Our focus for these patients is similar to treatments for people still undergoing treatment, with the exception that we have more flexibility. As people have moved away from active treatment and their energy is returning, we’re able to help them not just survive treatment, but flourish and thrive.

A lot of individuals are motivated to be healthier than they were before their diagnosis. Many of our female patients, especially those with breast or gynecological cancers, gain a lot of weight during treatment. With these patients, we focus on weight management to help reach the ideal body weight for cancer prevention, a goal that looks different for each patient.

PC: Are there supplements that help support patients who have decreased estrogen levels?

EJ: Absolutely. The symptoms we see commonly include hot flashes and joint pain. There’s a lot that we can do from an exercise standpoint that can be helpful, especially for joint pain. We’ll also include natural forms of anti-inflammatories. For hot flashes, exercise can help, but there are also a number of supplements that help decrease the reactivity in the blood vessels that causes hot flashes. We make sure we’re using modalities that will not impact hormone levels, since that would be counterproductive in terms of lowering the risk of cancer recurrence.

PC: Are there misconceptions you’d like to put to rest about naturopathic oncology?

CA: I tell patients it’s not possible to “carrot juice” cancer away. There are no natural therapies that are going to eliminate cancer from a person’s body. Our job is to help patients understand that modern medicine provides a number of wonderful options and we’re here to help them be as minimally toxic as possible, to help patients reduce the side effects of treatment, and reduce the risk of occurrence of cancer in the future.