As physicians who practice integrative medicine, patients often ask us what to do when they have cancer. Cancer is a complex medical problem. The prognosis depends on multiple variables including the type of cancer, whether or not it has spread, family history and nutritional and socioeconomic status, as well as other factors.
Patients who embark on a course of alternative therapies often are faced with an array of claims regarding the benefits of alternative therapies. Patients must be careful of these claims, as they're not always true.
Many physicians and alternative health care practitioners have experimented with different approaches to cancer, including vaccines and injections derived from urine, plants, apricot pits, shark cartilage, minerals and melatonin.
To date, these various products haven't borne out their promise as cancer-fighting agents.
The National Institute of Health Office of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine is currently evaluating the benefits (if any) and side effects of these therapies.
Studies show that a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables reduces the incidence of cancer, coronary artery disease, macular degeneration and arthritis. Conversely, studies have found that additives such as the nitrates found in hot dogs increase certain types of cancers.
Using vitamin supplements derived from fresh fruits and vegetables, however, might not have the same cancer preventing benefits. For instance, smokers who were supplemented with vitamin A developed more lung cancers than those who weren't.
The newest buzzword is phytonutrients (i.e., nutrients derived from plants). It appears that many foods such as broccoli, blueberries, soy, tomatoes and garlic contain compounds that are beneficial toward regulating the immune system and fighting germs and cancer.
The Mind-Body-Spirituality Continuum
Dr. Candace Pert, discoverer of the morphine receptor in the brain and author of Molecules of Emotion, concluded that various subsystems, such as the immune, musculoskeletal, endocrine (hormonal) and nervous system, work together and effect each other. This is exactly what alternative therapies have espoused for centuries: It's important to work on all aspects of yourself in order to get better.
Studies have shown the benefits of expression of emotion, social support and even prayer for those with severe illness.
So what does all of this mean? That you should work with your diet, emotions, mind and spirituality, as well as your physician, in order to get better. We caution those who feel that "positive thinking" is all one needs, as there's a negative connotation, which is that if you don't get better you must have a weak mind. This is simply not true!
Body Work and Bioenergetic Therapies
Over the past decade, there's been an increasing body of research on various alternative therapies.
Massage appears to cause brain wave changes and reduce stress-related hormones. Scientists are now finding that acupuncture, a technique that's thousands of years old, induces changes in neurotransmitters and changes blood flow to various pain centers in the brain.
Touch therapists can perceive the electromagnetic field running in and through the body most often called the "aura." Healers are able to manipulate this field by using various methods. Unfortunately, studies on therapeutic touch haven't always shown diagnostic accuracy, largely because some people can perform these techniques better than others.
Products we use every day can affect our hormonal balance. These environmental hormone disrupters are chemicals present in pesticides, plastics, solvents and many other products used in daily life. In the body, these chemicals appear to affect both prostate and breast cancer.
Ultraviolet radiation and other forms of radiation also have an effect on us, as do carcinogens such as those found in the charring on grilled meat.
What To Do When You're Diagnosed With Cancer
It's very important to know about your cancer. Find out from your physician if it's treatable, what the cure and response rates are, what the likely outcome will be, and if there any studies done on the treatment methods you'll be using. Find out how often your physician has utilized this treatment before and what the side effects are. You'll want to know how this will affect your quality and length of life and then evaluate its worth. You might even want to talk to other patients who have received similar therapy.
Some patients then wish to choose an alternative therapist to work in conjunction with their prescribed treatments. We suggest you choose a therapist based on his or her education, reputation and the rapport you develop. Be sure that they work with your physician and be careful if they offer you something that sounds too good to be true — it often is. Also, be aware of therapists who are secretive or use "secret ingredients" and of testimonials from patients with no validated studies to back them up.
Using an Integrative —Approach
We strongly recommend working with your physician. It's important to do so, and the results are always better. Through experience, we have developed the "five star" approach as follows:
-· Lifestyle. Too often we fly through life when our body is screaming for us to slow down. It's important to discipline yourself to slow down and smell the roses.
Eat a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, eating as many organic foods as possible. Supplement your diet with a low-dose multivitamin and a good antioxidant. Target your cancer. For example, if you have breast cancer, increase your soy intake and decrease fat and alcohol. For colon cancers, increase fiber and decrease sugar, meats and alcohol.
Exercise, and learn to enjoy it. This includes stretching, strengthening and aerobic exercises such as tai chi or chi gong.
· Body Work. Get with a therapist who understands your body's neuromuscular holding patterns, or "armoring patterns." These patterns contribute to musculoskeletal tension, and relieving them often induces a state of well being.
· Bioenergy. Find a therapist who can work with acupuncture or energy medicine techniques. This is often very beneficial.
· Work With Your Emotions and Spirituality. Don't worry about negative events, diet, stress and depression in your life. It's normal to have these. Watch, but don't worry, about your symptoms. Develop a sense of "connectedness" in your life, and reinforce a sense of spirituality. This might mean attending church, synagogue or a mosque or learning how to meditate daily.
· Become Aware of Your Environment. This is important not only for chemical toxins, but emotional toxins as well. Learn to clean these out of your life.
Finally, remember the following things: Getting sick is a process, and so is getting well; healing doesn't always mean being cured; a cancer diagnosis serves to reaffirm to each of us we must live every moment with fullness and meaning.