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Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Cancer Patients

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves subjecting a patient to pressurized oxygen to promote and speed healing in the body. This therapy has been proven effective in treating a number of specific conditions, like decompression sickness from deep sea diving, but it may also be useful in treating cancer patients. More research is needed, but this therapy could make traditional cancer treatments more effective and it can also help patients heal from damaging treatments, like radiation therapy.

What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing in pure oxygen in a pressurized setting. Normal air is only about 22 percent oxygen, and pure oxygen is 100 percent oxygen. People generally get enough oxygen from the air, but there are some health benefits to taking in more than that. Using pressure, either in a tube or an entire room, allows the lungs to take in even more oxygen than they would at normal pressure. When undergoing hyperbaric oxygen therapy you can expect the pressure to be as much as three times higher than normal atmospheric pressure.

Benefits of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

This kind of therapy may be prescribed for a number of conditions, but there are some general ways in which it promotes healing. Oxygen normally travels through the bloodstream and is carried to all parts of the body where it promotes healing by stimulating the release of substances like stem cells and growth factors. The oxygen is also used to fight bacteria and infections. More oxygen traveling through the body increases these processes and promotes healing.

Injuries in the body and infections in particular require more oxygen to heal, so this kind of therapy can be used to speed healing in certain situations. For example, someone with a wound that is not healing because of diabetes may benefit from the therapy. Serious infections can also benefit from oxygen therapy to help support the immune system. Other conditions for which hyperbaric oxygen may be prescribed by a doctor include severe anemia, brain abscesses, arterial gas embolism, decompression sickness, gangrene, severe injuries to tissue, carbon monoxide poisoning, radiation injuries, sudden vision loss, and burns.

Hyperbaric Oxygen for Cancer Patients

Pressurized oxygen treatment is not a new procedure. It has been used for centuries. As researchers gained a greater understanding of cancers, like mesothelioma, over the years, the usefulness and risks of hyperbaric oxygen have been debated. Oxygen is necessary for cells to grow and divide, so it was thought that extra oxygen would actually promote tumor growth. Research into the use of hyperbaric oxygen on cancer patients is still limited, but has so far proven to be safe and to not promote tumor growth.

There is, in fact, some evidence that pressurized oxygen therapy could actually inhibit cancer growth. Some studies, for instance, have found that combining oxygen therapy with chemotherapy can help slow cancer. This may be because some tumors prove resistant to chemotherapy drugs when there is inadequate oxygen. Supplemental oxygen may decrease this resistance and make chemotherapy more effective. Results have been mixed, but there is also some evidence that hyperbaric oxygen with radiation therapy can make the latter more effective. In these uses, hyperbaric oxygen is referred to as a radiosensitizing or chemosensitizing agent.

Photodynamic therapy, an emerging treatment for mesothelioma and other types of cancer, is proving to have great promise. It involves the injection of a drug, which is activated by light to attack a tumor and cancer cells. It is minimally invasive and avoids some of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. The photodynamic drug relies on oxygen to target the cancer cells, so the procedure is often done under hyperbaric oxygen conditions.

Sometimes, cancer patients undergoing treatment become injured from that treatment. Radiation therapy can cause serious injury and hyperbaric oxygen therapy is known to help heal these injuries. Cancer patients undergoing surgery may also develop wounds that are difficult to heal or infections that can be treated with oxygen. In both cases the treatment can help relieve symptoms, heal the body, and help cancer patients feel better.

What to Expect with Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment

If your doctor has suggested that you may benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy, you may be treated with one of two types of devices: a one-person unit or a hyperbaric room. In either case the therapy is painless and non-invasive. You won’t be required to stay in the hospital and you can have the therapy done on an outpatient basis. With the one-person unit you will lie down on a surface that slides into a tube, a little bit like a CT machine. This can be uncomfortable if you feel claustrophobic.

A hyperbaric oxygen room is larger and can accommodate multiple people. It will look a lot like any other hospital room and you may sit or lie down in the room to receive treatment. A nurse or technician will fit you with a mask or a plastic hood to administer the oxygen. This may be a better option if you are uncomfortable with being in confined spaces. When in a pressurized setting you will feel pressure in our ears, but it is not severe. It will feel like the pressure changes on an airplane, and you can likely get relief by yawning or swallowing. Expect to spend about two hours in this treatment.

Risks of Hyperbaric Oxygen

Receiving pressurized oxygen is considered to be generally safe. Research has confirmed that it does not promote tumor growth or put patients in remission at risk of a cancer recurrence. There are a few risks of complications that are very rare. These include temporary changes in vision caused by pressure on the eyes’ lenses, injuries to the ear from increased air pressure, a collapsed lung, seizures, and fire. The risk of fire is because of the high level of oxygen in the room or unit. Because of this risk you will be asked to come in clean of any petroleum-based products like lotions or hair products.

Researchers are continuing to work on studies to find out just how useful hyperbaric oxygen can be for cancer patients, including those with mesothelioma. So far the results are promising and in addition to relieving side effects, helping patients to heal, and use in photodynamic therapy, this kind of treatment may actually make chemotherapy and radiation more effective. It is a relatively simple procedure and one that has few risks and side effects and is tolerated by most patients.

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