Right up front, let me say if alternative medicine therapies could cure cancer they wouldn’t be alternative. Conspiracy theory alert: there is no plot on the part of oncologists, radiation therapists, pharmaceutical companies, et al. to keep lifesaving alternative therapies just beyond your reach so they can control your lives (and pocketbooks).
If the mainstream physicians involved in cancer care can be accused of anything, it’s the intellectual laziness of their reluctance to learn something about integrating conventional and alternative therapies for their patients. But even this is changing. Each year I receive notification of more and more courses for physicians that begin with the phrase “Integrating Alternative Therapies…” So the overall outlook is good.
Most oncologists know their patients will be using alternative therapies, including vast amounts of nutritional supplements, though patients often keep mum about it, fearful they’ll be told to stop immediately. After swinging back and forth for years, the current thinking among the medical establishment goes something like this: if you’re a cancer patient, nutritional supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs, etc.) are perfectly fine along with consciously healthful eating. However, don’t take supplements at the same time you’re undergoing radiation or chemotherapy because current evidence suggests that some supplements (especially antioxidants) may reduce the effect of treatment, either by protecting cancer cells or by interfering with the way treatment drugs are supposed to act in your body.
Most oncologists welcome wholeheartedly the help of nutritionists, body workers, acupuncturists, and mind-body therapists. Oncologists I’ve spoken to have no problem with energy therapies such as Reiki. They’re skittish about herbs (western, Chinese, Ayurvedic) and homeopathy simply because they know nothing about them.
The only fully integrated cancer center I’m aware of, a group that feels completely comfortable with both conventional and alternative therapies (chiropractic, naturopathic medicine, mind-body medicine, and nutrition), is Cancer Treatment Centers of America, whose closest hospital is in Zion, IL.
Alternative doesn’t equal cure
Despite internet hype to the contrary, no alternative therapies have ever been proven to cure cancer. Sorry if you think otherwise, but when “cured” patients are actually tracked down it turns out they either didn’t have cancer in the first place or didn’t mention they had also undergone a full course of conventional treatment. If you’re so inclined, search “alternative cancer treatment” at amazon.com and glance through a few of the 1,600-plus results. Virtually all of them suggest their own particular add-on (diet, supplement, chant) to conventional therapy. The handful that do encourage you to stop conventional care and buy their product/go to their particular clinic in Mexico, if not outright frauds like Hulda Clark’s The Cure for All Cancers (Clark herself died of cancer in 2009), are intellectually dishonest.
Large numbers of curious and desperate cancer patients take this tour of the various Tijuana cancer clinics, many of which have been around for decades. If you’re ever inclined to explore this option for yourself or a loved one, please first read Choices in Healing by Michael A. Lerner. A lifelong advocate of complementary therapies and founder of the non-profit Commonweal, the learning and support center in Bolinas, CA, Lerner relates his own experience with the Tijuana clinics. At the time, he himself had been diagnosed with cancer and had not wanted to proceed with conventional care. Visiting each of the clinics as a potential patient, he found, sadly, that they were all alike. Great promises of a cure, but when he asked to speak with patient survivors or look at actual evidence, suddenly everything was private and off-limits. He left highly disillusioned.
Lerner remains a major advocate of complementary cancer therapy. Along with conventional care, his own ultimate cancer cure involved several alternative modalities. Commonweal, through its Cancer Help Program, continues to offer week-long retreats for patients newly diagnosed with cancer. Their Institute for the Study of Health & Illness, founded by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, is designed for physicians, nurses, and medical students who want to incorporate complementary therapies into their practice.
One final point: although there are no nutritional supplements known to cure cancer (despite the claims about Essiac, mistletoe, venus fly trap, shark cartilage, and on and on), there is some interesting research into using certain supplements to prevent cancer in high-risk patients and prevent recurrence in those already treated.
I’ve already written about how regular users of multiple vitamins have a lower cancer incidence than non-users. But also, if you’re a member of a family with a very high cancer risk, have years of being exposed to cancer-causing toxins (like tobacco smoke), or are a cancer survivor (and hence more prone to a second cancer than someone who’s never had cancer at all), then consider augmenting with green tea, milk thistle, and tumeric (curcumin) supplements.
Each has been shown–in lab studies, mind you, not yet in large-scale patient clinical trials–to reduce the conversion of normal cells to cancer cells (by binding and detoxifying carcinogens), to delay the spread of cancer to other parts of the body (by reducing inflammation and angiogenesis, in which the cancer increases its own blood supply), and to reduce cell damage from carcinogens (by scavenging free radicals).
I hope you never need any of this information, but if you or a friend does you’ll know where to find it.
David Edelberg, MD