Alternative Therapies for Liver Cancer
Some complementary treatments may help ease cancer treatment side effects — but talk to your doctor before trying any herbal remedies.
By Sara Calabro
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Research on the use of complementary and alternative medicine for liver cancer is limited. But studies suggest that certain alternative therapies may offer benefits for people being treated for all types of cancer, including liver cancer. Some alternative treatments have been found to alleviate unwanted side effects of conventional cancer treatments, such as nausea and vomiting.
Compared with other types of cancer, liver cancer occurs relatively infrequently in the United States and Europe. That's one reason why research on the use of complementary medicine and alternative medicine for liver cancer is sparse in Western countries. Studies on liver disease in general, however, are beginning to shed light on the potential ways complementary and alternative treatments might be used for liver cancer.
Liver Cancer: Complementary and Alternative Treatments
Much of the research on alternative medicine for cancer has examined the therapies' ability to alleviate side effects of conventional treatments. Here are some of the latest ideas on the uses of complementary and alternative medicine for people with liver cancer:
- Acupuncture.Studies have shown that acupuncture can help with nausea and vomiting among people with cancer. Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy, and nausea can be especially problematic for people with liver cancer. In addition to nausea caused by chemotherapy, “liver cancer patients can experience nausea related to the cancer itself because of where it is located,” explains Patrick Mansky, MD, medical oncologist and medical director for clinical research at the Cancer Team at Bellin Health in Green Bay, Wis.
- Herbs.Milk thistle, a Mediterranean herb, has been used for centuries to treat liver problems. “Research is currently being done on milk thistle’s effect on liver toxicity from chemotherapy,” says Dr. Mansky. “That research may [also] be relevant for liver cancer.” Mistletoe is another herb that is getting attention from liver cancer researchers. Recently, a small study in Egypt looked at the effects of mistletoe on liver cancer patients. Results from that study were quite promising, says Mansky.
- Exercise.Yoga and tai chi may help patients overcome the fatigue that is commonly associated with liver cancer. “You have to be careful that you can tolerate certain positions," Mansky points out, "but as long as it’s done under the supervision of an experienced teacher, it can be helpful.”
- Diet.A healthy diet is essential for all cancer patients, but it is especially important for those with liver cancer. “The liver is one of the main organs in the digestive process,” explains Mansky. “If liver function is decreased, you have a more difficult time with digestion.” A diet rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, especially green, leafy ones, can help promote digestion.
- Massage.Liver cancer patients can sometimes experience edema, swelling that occurs when fluids build up in the body. In people with liver cancer, edema tends to affect the legs, ankles, and feet. Massage, when administered by a licensed, experienced massage therapist, who is knowledgeable about treating cancer patients, can help to relieve swelling. “There are no specific data on liver cancer," says Mansky, "but there are some data on breast cancer patients whose arm swelling was decreased from massage.”
Liver Cancer: Be Careful With Herbal Therapies
Some herbal preparations, such as those mentioned above, may be helpful in treating symptoms associated with liver cancer. Even so, people who have liver cancer need to take extra precautions before taking an herbal remedy.
“A liver that is affected by cancer may have a harder time breaking down and metabolizing" substances, explains Mansky — in particular, alcohol. A person with cancer of the liver may have a harder time processing alcohol than people without liver disease and should avoid alcohol-containing products. Since many herbal preparations in extract form are alcohol-based, people with liver cancer should always check the ingredients for the presence of any alcohol before taking these herbs.
Additionally, some herbal supplements, such as gingko biloba, can cause excess bleeding. Because the liver releases important substances that help the blood to clot, liver cancer can decrease the body's ability to stave off bleeding. As a result, people with liver cancer should discuss any new medications, including herbal supplements, with their doctorbeforetaking them.
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