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Naturopathic Medicine: Some gain for pain of cancer treatment

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If a breast cancer diagnosis isn't enough to shake up your life, try adding hot flashes to make it all that much more challenging. The unfortunate reality of some of the new treatments for breast cancer is that they often induce menopause, even in women who have already experienced menopause.

If the breast cancer is of the estrogen receptor positive type, in a post-menopausal woman, it is likely that the therapy will involve a new type of chemotherapy known as an aromatase inhibitor. While aromatase inhibitors involve fewer side effects than some of the older chemotherapeutics, they are not always easy for women to tolerate.

In post-menopausal women, fat cells continue to produce estrogen. Aromatase inhibitors inhibit estrogen production by fat cells to reduce estrogen levels in the body. When estrogen levels drop, women can experience menopause symptoms for a second time. It is not uncommon to experience hot flashes, joint pain, weight gain and insomnia.

Severe symptoms

The typical duration of aromatase inhibitor treatment is five years. For women with severe menopausal symptoms, this is a long time to be uncomfortable. Treatments for menopausal symptoms generally involve therapies that increase estrogen, but for women with estrogen-sensitive cancer, this is not an option.

Natural therapies for menopause typically involve plant-based estrogen-like compounds that are still controversial for use in this population of women. Doctors have had some success with antidepressant pharmaceuticals to reduce menopause symptoms for women in this situation. However, antidepressants may involve unwanted side effects, including weight gain, nausea and decreased libido.

While it may seem dismal, there is some good news. Aromatase inhibitors are dramatically reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence. And new research suggests that women who experience aromatase-inhibitor-induced menopausal symptoms are 30 percent less likely to have their cancer return in the next nine years.

While this is great news for women who are struggling with hot flashes day and night, it will not make five years of this therapy easier to tolerate. Effexor is the antidepressant most often prescribed to women in this situation, but a new study shows an exciting new prospect.

Study details

The study compared women using Arimidex and Effexor to women using Arimidex and acupuncture to treat their hot flashes.

After 12 weeks, women who received acupuncture had improvement in menopause symptoms that were comparable to the improvements seen in the Effexor group. The acupuncture group did not report side effects, and it did not experience a recurrence in hot flashes for 14 weeks after finishing acupuncture treatments.

The Effexor group complained of nausea, dry mouth, headache, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, increased blood pressure and constipation and had recurrence in hot flashes within two weeks of stopping the Effexor.

Aromatase inhibitors are working to promote longevity in women with estrogen-sensitive breast cancer, and it is important to maintain quality of life during treatment.

If you are struggling with aromatase-inhibitor-induced menopause, remember that there is a gain for all your pain, and there may be a solution with acupuncture. You might find it improves your menopause symptoms as well as other aspects of your well-being.

Dr. Christina Amicone is a resident physician in naturopathic medicine at Yellowstone Naturopathic Clinic and St. Vincent's Cancer Care. She can be reached at 259-5096. Send naturopathic health questions to info@yncnaturally.com.

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