So is Hemlock…

When it comes to cancer “cures,” the debate about natural remedies, complementary therapies, and the medicinal value of peach pits and coffee enemas will likely never cease.

As I’ve posted in a number of forums, I support first and foremost the right of each of us to make our own decisions about treatment. Period. While someone may make very different decisions about treatment than I have, I will never question nor criticize that choice. We each need to sleep at night, and the only way to do that is with confidence that we’ve made the best decision we can, and one that is consistent with our values. I will call out anyone who passes judgment on the choices of others regardless of whether they fall in to the “traditional” or “alternative” medicine camps.  (Read: I’d love your comments on this post, but when it comes to criticizing others, play nice!)

For the record, it is my personal belief that there is a role for all of it when it comes to my health. I can’t imagine not using every tool in my arsenal (yes, another war metaphor…get over it) to improve my odds. On the other hand, I am a firm believer in evidence-based medicine.

Let’s define our terms.

Conventional medicine is typically offered by a licensed, western medical doctor. These therapies are generally approved by the government, having undergone rigorous scientific testing, clinical trial and peer review. Chemotherapy, radiation, endocrine treatments are all in this camp.

Alternative therapies, by contrast, are typically “folk” medicine and have not necessarily undergone or withstood scientific scrutiny. Essiac tea is one example of a folk remedy…an herbal tea of an Ojibwa medicine man that made its way into mainstream awareness as a cancer remedy by a 1920s nurse in Ontario. (Studies did not support its effectiveness.) Other alternative therapies include mind-body treatments (reiki, yoga, acupuncture) and even prayer.

Complementary treatments combine these two modalities. It takes into account that we are complex beings and that while chemotherapy, for example, may effectively treat some cancers, we can also boost our immune systems, reduce our stress and heal ourselves in all sorts of natural ways. Complementary is also subject to scientific scrutiny, both in terms of the validity of a given treatment modality, and how they impact conventional therapies. Both Vitamin D supplements and phelinus linteus mushrooms are “natural remedies” that are being investigated. Thankfully, we are seeing more this as an area of emerging science.

The landscape is shifting as we learn more about the power of our minds and the value of complementary medicine, and is being helped along by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM, established as part of the NIH in 1992) and Integrative Medicine departments in hospitals and medical schools across the country. I believe this can only be good for all of us.

On the other hand, I’m not sure when the “natural remedy” crowd hooked up with the conspiracy theorists, but all the talk about rejecting science in favor of “alternatives” puzzles me to no end. Just because it’s natural it’s good? Perhaps their remedies fail the evidence-based gold standard, and so it is easiest to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and reject science in all of its manifestations. The mantra: the FDA is eating out of the palm of “Big Pharma,” which make so much money on keeping people sick that they could cure cancer but won’t.

Yes there is money to be made off cancer. Other diseases are the same, of course, but when one’s life is threatened many will spare no expense. However, does that mean that the secret formula to cure cancer is locked in a vault somewhere while scientists and shareholders stand at the cash register? Wouldn’t it make more sense for “Big Pharma” to find the cure, charge what they do for a typical course of chemo, and have a lifetime of patients in need of Viagra and anti-aging creams?

Sure, alternative therapies may be natural…but so is hemlock.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan
    Aug 01, 2012 @ 18:39:41

    I agree with what you have written completely. What a great point about big pharmas making viagra and anti aging creams if they can cure cancer. Your brilliant mind analyzes things in ways that bring great thought provoking ideas and you still manage to throw humor in to the mix. Thank you for this awesome post!


    • Lori
      Aug 09, 2012 @ 07:59:45

      Thank you, Susan…we all need to keep THINKING. When we allow ourselves in any kind of box, without trying to understand the opposing argument, we lose. There’s something right about each side, always!


  2. DrAttai
    Aug 01, 2012 @ 20:22:13

    Lori – thanks so much for this post. As a traditionally-trained Western physician, I am a strong believer in evidence-based medicine and that is the focus of my practice. However I also feel we have a lot to learn from Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine both in terms of disease prevention / health maintenance as well as treatment. But it’s more than tea and pills – it’s about how we approach life and take care of the body, mind and spirit. I do feel that there is tremendous value in combining the best of Eastern and Western medicine and as you correctly pointed out, many Eastern medicine treatments and traditions now have evidence behind them.

    As for the conspiracy theorists, I know personally I would be very happy to find another line of work if all of a sudden there were no more women with breast cancer to take care of.


    • Lori
      Aug 09, 2012 @ 08:03:31

      Thank you so much for your comment! Yes, a blend of approaches makes sense. We are a whole being, and addressing the dis-ease throughout our system has to be good for us, in both physical healing and spiritual healing ways. Personally, I’m happiest when Western science confirms Eastern practices…”evidence” is reassuring for me personally.


  3. jelebelle
    Aug 01, 2012 @ 21:43:04

    Thank you…indeed a great post. Just about to start the Essiac tea suggested by my neighborhood herbalist. I combine both eastern and western philosphies….body, mind, spirit connecting my healing to all aspects of my life. Wish I could cut out the refined sugar, but sometimes a gummy bear is the only thing that will make this icky taste disappear from the chemo. Anyway…your thoughtfulness is greatly appreciated.


    • Lori
      Aug 08, 2012 @ 21:06:54

      Sugar has its place in life!!!

      Love that you have found balance. I think ultimately that is what it is about. And if nothing else, it helps us live with our choices.


  4. Jan Baird Hasak
    Aug 02, 2012 @ 07:21:25

    Lori, another fabulous post! You aren’t afraid to tackle controversial issues, and I admire you for that. As a retired patent attorney who used to work for “Big Pharma and understands the challenges,” I agree completely with your take on Western and Eastern medicine. Natural does not always equal healthful/helpful. We must be cognizant of potential serious side-effects and keep our minds open and our cynicism at bay. xx


    • Lori
      Aug 08, 2012 @ 21:17:57

      Thank you Jan!!! It’s all about balance, isn’t it. That, and making the decisions that allow us to sleep at night! I am so very tired of the judgements…we each need to do what’s best for us. Period.

      Thanks, always, for your support!!


  5. Facing Cancer (@cancer2gether)
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 01:41:14

    During my treatment I combined medical and complementary therapies and have to say it felt very good to have the problem addressed from the varying perspectives. You captured the different methods very fairly here, and it’s nice to see these different fields finding common ground through complimentary therapy. I have to say my acupuncture was a big relief in between the weeks of chemotherapy – if nothing else, it was good to be taken care of and given a space in which to relax.



    • Lori
      Aug 08, 2012 @ 21:22:13

      Thanks so much for your comment! I agree it is about balance, and more and more I am embracing the benefits of stress reduction, mediation and massage! May have to add acupuncture to the mix.


  6. Nancy's Point (@NancysPoint)
    Aug 07, 2012 @ 13:50:18

    It seems so often it has to be an all or nothing approach doesn’t it? I agree with Dr. Attai, there is much to gain from combining wisdom of both Eastern and Western medicine practices. My treatment followed the conventional path, but I know others have made different choices and I respect their right to do so. Thanks for your balanced and rational words. And also for encouraging us to “play” nicely.


  7. Sean Robins
    Nov 26, 2012 @ 13:53:01

    I read an article a few years ago that described a study into how the placebo effect works. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that even knowing they were taking a placebo, that patients still received many of the positive effects that the patients on a prescribed medication were enjoying. I also have a very dear friend who has an inoperable cancer who has outlived doctors best estimates by about 3 years now, and it looks like there is no stopping her. At first she was very depressed (and very sick), and these days she is very positive and appears to be in the best of health.

    These two things remind me that the human immune system is quite incredible when you really think about it, and yet it seems that the the immune system itself can’t operate at its peak without the faith and positive mindset of the human being behind it. I’m a great believer that a person’s faith in a treatment is a particularly powerful ally when it comes to dealing with cancer. While alternative/folk medicines might not be clinically proven, I tend to think that if a person has an unwavering belief in them, and if that person’s faith in a positive outcome is strong enough for that person to avoid suffering with depression over the disease, that this can be enough to make a big difference in how well a person deals with the disease and even whether there will ultimately be a positive outcome.

    I’d like to think that my friend’s positive outlook and the love and support of all of the people around her have contributed to keeping her with us, just as much as her medical treatments have.


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