Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has been around for decades. It’s a painless, straightforward treatment that has been used successfully on many different complex problems. Understandably, clinicians, and patients alike have been interested in its effects in cancer treatment.
At first, clinicians didn’t consider HBOT for cancer treatment. After all, most of the body’s cells require oxygen to grow and form. This suggests that HBOT could increase cancer growth. But studies have shown that HBOT doesn’t have a significant metastatic correlation.1 That is, it doesn’t seem to help cancer grow.
Cancer cells also thrive in a low oxygen environment.2 This poses the question: wouldn’t adding an oxygen-rich environment around tissues help reduce cancer cells?
Can HBO therapy treat cancer?
In general, the research does not support it. For the cost and time investment, the results in reducing the cancer cells themselves are almost non-existent.
However, it can help serious problems that come from cancer treatment. If you’ve experienced radiation therapy, you’ve probably run into secondary health problems. Meaning you have problems that came from the cancer treatment itself, not the cancer.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy and cancer therapy problems
Radiation to the head and neck
This therapy can damage salivary glands, oral tissue, and the jaw and teeth. If you’ve had this kind of radiation, you may have had an extremely dry mouth and/or tissue breakdown. Tooth and jaw decay are also common, so many patients end up needing to have extensive dental work done.
Radiation in this area can also lead to trouble eating and swallowing. Many patients suffering from this have serious discomfort even with talking. Sometimes the salivation is so low that a patient needs to get a G-tube or peg tube for stomach feedings. If saliva isn’t produced, digestion can’t begin, and patients aren’t able to tolerate eating by mouth.
In one study, HBOT has no significant impact on head and neck cancers. However, it has had positive effects on radiation-induced wounds.3
So, can HBOT help? Absolutely.
- It can restore your salivation. Good salivation enables comfortable eating, speech, and digestion. The rate of success is high, both from six months to many years post-cancer treatment.
- It’s used to treat infections of the jaw. Decaying teeth and lowered immunity from radiation can lead to serious infections. Jaw infections are one of HBO therapy’s most common usages.
- It can treat radiation burns on the head. Head, face, and neck wounds need prompt attention. They easily interfere with basic daily functions. HBOT is an excellent therapy for healing these difficult areas.
Radiation to the chest
Radiation for breast, lung, or heart cancer can affect everything in the surrounding area. One of the most common problems is the breakdown of the chest skin. Not only is the wound painful, but it is prone to infection. If you’ve had one of these wounds, you were probably frustrated that it wouldn’t heal, or heal very slowly.
What can HBO therapy do to help?
- It can increase healing.4 This is especially helpful for mixed wounds, such as radiation wounds and surgical wounds from removing tumors.
- HBOT promotes revascularization. To heal, wounds need blood vessels to bring nutrients and oxygen.
Radiation to the abdomen or pelvis
If you’ve had radiation for the colon, bowel, ovaries, or other areas, you’ve likely experienced secondary troubles. Bladder problems from cancer treatment can come with incontinence and trouble urinating.5 Bowel problems after chemotherapy can come with both diarrhea and constipation.6
How can HBOT help?
- It’s been used to treat bladder pain, incontinence, and frequency. This is a tremendous help in improving daily activity.
- While studies are limited, HBOT may help treat bowel incontinence. The oxygen-rich environment helps stimulate cell growth of the lining of the bowels.
Does insurance cover hyperbaric treatment for cancer?
HBOT has a limited number of diagnoses that are covered by insurance. According to the medicare.gov site, cancer treatment is not a diagnosis listed under possible coverage for HBO therapy.
However, there are several other issues listed that may qualify for coverage. Several can be problems that came with cancer treatment. These include:
- Soft tissue radionecrosis (radiation-damaged skin)
- Gas gangrene
- Progressive necrotizing infections (fast-moving skin-rotting infections)
- Acute peripheral arterial insufficiency (your arteries aren’t working well)
- Chronic refractory osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- Preparation and preservation of compromised skin grafts
We can’t guarantee any diagnosis can or will be covered by Medicare or other insurances. However, your odds are more likely if you have one of the above diagnoses. Another good indicator is if you’ve already had conventional treatments for your diagnosis that have failed. For example, you might qualify for HBOT insurance coverage if:
- You’ve had radiation-damaged skin that has not responded to conventional wound care.
- You’ve had surgery for a bone infection that didn’t resolve it.
- You have long-term radiation damage that has affected your salivation.
- You have a graft that failed or has a high risk of failing.
There’s another important consideration. Many insurances don’t cover HBO therapy for radiation damage unless it’s been at least six months since your last radiation treatment.
But wouldn’t HBOT help the low oxygen levels in cancer patients?
Cancer growth is a process that doesn’t solely rely on oxygen or the lack of oxygen. Oxygen doesn’t necessarily kill bad cells. Cancers also can behave differently in each person and in each area of the body. Generally, cancer involves cell mutation and the rapid division of these cells.7 Successful cancer therapies, therefore, need to alter one of these issues.
While HBOT may help the body in general, the cancer benefits probably won’t be significant. HBOT without insurance coverage is extremely expensive. Many patients don’t find it cost-effective to add HBOT as a complementary therapy.
Are you having cancer radiation-related health problems?
If you’re suffering from a complication from cancer radiation, and other treatments have failed, hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be your next step. If you or your doctor is considering it, Hyperbaric Physicians of Georgia would be happy to answer your questions. Please give us a call at 770-422-0517, or complete our contact form here.
[This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice, assessment, and diagnosis. No contributor to this article can project insurance coverage/denial of your diagnosis, nor the outcomes if you choose or decline HBOT. This article does not guarantee treatments may have partial, full, or no insurance coverage.]