Many people afflicted by cancer turn to "supportive care" in order better to manage the shock of the illness and its treatments - operation, chemo or radiotherapy. Homeopathy is the remedial care most frequently used to attenuate fatigue, anxiety, the side effects of the treatments or the decrease of immunity. We talk about this with Dr Sophie Scheffer, general practitioner and homeopath in Limal, Belgium.
What do we mean by supportive care and what does it bring to oncology?
Dr Scheffer: "Supportive care is used as a complement to conventional treatments, allowing patients who suffer from cancer to improve their quality of life and their chances of healing. The forms of supportive care most often used in Europe are homeopathy, phytotherapy, psychotherapy, acupuncture, dietetics/nutrition, awareness, and energising and relaxing techniques (sophrology, reflexology, etc.)
Several studies have demonstrated that supportive care in oncology is not only a bonus for the patient's comfort, but also provokes a drop in cancer-related deaths. In particular, one study (Psychologic Intervention Improves Survival for Breast Cancer Patients) was carried out over a period of 10 years on 227 women who were suffering from localised breast cancer, were operated, and then separated into two groups – one group received only classical treatments, while the second group received classical treatments and were also helped by psychologists, learning techniques of relaxation and receiving advice on lifestyles (sport, nutrition). In the short term (4 months), the group who had benefitted from supportive care suffered less from depression and experienced a better adaptation to stress. In the medium term (20 months), this same group experienced fewer relapses and a stronger immunity to cancer. In the long term (11 years), the women who had followed at least 20 % of the accompanying programme presented 2 times fewer relapses than the others, and the reduction of mortality in this group reached 68 %.
Supportive care in oncology developed thanks to women who were suffering from breast cancer – focussed and demanding, they went looking to understand why they had fallen ill, and how to escape from that mindset… In the United States, clinics proposing supportive accompaniment have existed for more than 15 years. In Belgium, openings for supportive care in hospitals and clinics for oncology are multiplying. La Vie-là, opened by the Clinique Saint Pierre in Ottignies, is a "Healing House" for people who are following or have followed a treatment against cancer. It offers complete care, according to the principle of integrative medicine. It has such a resounding reputation that French hospitals come to visit."
So the patient demand is strong?
Dr Scheffer: "You should know that in 2007, in France, 30 % of cancer patients were following a form of CAM (Complementary Alternative Medicine) - homeopathy, the most popular complementary treatment, represented 60 % of CAMs. In the same year, in the United States, 65 % of cancer patients used some form of CAM (National Health Interview Survey, USA). By doing so, these patients were seeking a better general state, to improve their immunity and to manage their pain. Studies in 18 countries showed that this pratice is more widespread in the USA than in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. But the increase in the use of CAM's is very clear since 2000.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of coordination between the medical personnel. Between
38 % and 60 % of patients who take complementary treatments do not inform their oncologist (in Fondation contre le Cancer : Cancer and medécines complémentaires : vers une nouvelle cohabitation, 2014). And it is still often the case that doctors misunderstand and are wary of supportive treatments such as homeopathy."
How does homeopathy improve the quality of life and patient healing?
Dr Scheffer: "It works at several levels. A homeopathic background treatment supports the patient's terrain, their body, but also their emotions, which are specific to each person. The announcement of a cancer immediately evokes the idea of death. Consultation, exams, screening, treatment… the protocol is quickly put into operation, but it's brutal and troubling. Homeopathy brings physical and emotional support.
The cancer specialists with whom I am in contact tell me that they can see very clearly the difference between patients who take homeopathic treatment and those who do not. Also, the patients who come to see me after they have begun their chemo without homeopathy notice a real difference once they begin taking the complementary treatment.
It works first of all at the digestive level – the known side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain – these are symptoms of the intoxication of the liver due to the impact of the chemical substances on this organ. Homeopathy has as real effect on the detoxification of the liver. I prescribe Digeodren® from Sevene or HoméoRégul from LG Homéo, which works very efficiently towards this goal – patients who only take this supportive treatment already notice a major difference. Some of them suffer from mouth ulcers and stomatitis. These buccal inflammations often respond well to Nitricum acidum.
Then the homeopathic treatment acts on fatigue. Patients who have a chemo treatment every 3 weeks can take as much as 15 days to recover, they are weaker and unable to assume their daily work. With the help of homeopathy, they often recuperate in a few days.
Sleep is also troubled by chemotherapy, particularly if it is associated with cortisone – here too, homeopathy helps to restore better sleep. Coffea cruda or Phosphorus can also be a great help. I often use Ignatia, Kali carbonicum or Arsenicum album, according to the type of anxiety which underlies the insomnia.
Finally, on the emotional level of living with cancer – homeopathic medicine, when it is well-chosen, helps to soothe the emotional aspects, and therefore allow the patient more perspective, less anxiety and a better acceptance of the treatments. Of course, psychotherapeutic help is also appreciable. I often prescribe Calmodren or HoméoNormyl, which is effective against nervousness, stress and sleep disorders.
Homeopathy is also useful to minimise the side effects of radiotherapy -burns, protection of the healthy tissues, fatigue... Belladonna and Camphora can often ease burns. Homeopathy also helps with postoperative recuperation and healing. Finally, it reinforces the patients' immune defences, because it is often a disorder of the immune system which enables cancer to develop.
During the treatments, the doctors and the family are very present for the patients. But when the treatments end, the medical visits become less frequent, the family relaxes - patients often experience a sensation of emptiness. Homeopathy, as well as regularity in the listening process, really helps those who fall into this period of depression.
In conclusion, I'd like to quote from the ethnographic enquiry which was carried out among practitioners and users of homeopathy by Olivier Schmitz, a researcher at the Centre d'Etudes Sociologiques des Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis in Brussels. This study accurately describes the contributions of homeopathy in oncology - "Many studies have demonstrated that the prevalence of recourse to non-conventional medecines was more important in patients suffering from cancer than in any other category of illness. The characteristics of the disease, the uncertainty of its evolution as well as the effects of its treatment are all factors which influence patients to take non-conventional routes. (…) The main role of homeopathy in the context of oncology is to help and support the patients in their therapeutic decisions, whatever they may be. This "supportive" role is assumed by discussions with the homeopathic practitioner, by the therapeutic relation, but also by the homeopathic treatments themselves." (Les points d’articulation entre homéopathie et oncologie conventionnelle in Anthropologie et Santé 2 | 2011)"