Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Alternative Medicine for Cancer

Recently, a friend asked my advice regarding alternative medicine approaches for cancer patients. I have to start out with the disclaimer that acupuncturists are only authorized to treat the side effects of cancer and its treatment, not cancer itself. I also have to say that I cannot generalize about cancer – every cancer patient has a different experience of the disease. But I can offer my perspective from having been diagnosed with stage I ovarian cancer in 2005 while I was studying traditional Chinese Medicine. This is the letter I wrote to my friend.

Dear X:

Unlike with Western Medicine, there are no standard protocols, no statistics, no controlled studies for treatment of cancer with alternative medicine. If you choose alternative therapies, you will be performing an uncontrolled experiment on yourself in real time with no guarantees (but then when were there ever guarantees in life?).

I speak only from my experience in having had cancer and having elected not to follow standard western protocols for radiation or chemotherapy post-surgery. What you can take from this that may be applicable to yourself is something that you have to figure out. No one else, really, can do this research for you. You have to take a very proactive approach because, ultimately, you have to convince yourself that you are making the right decisions for taking care of yourself regardless of whether or not you will die from them.

After my surgery, I had to assume that cancer would recur unless I made radical changes both in decreasing my exposure to carcinogens and improving my inherent resistance to disease. There are a gazillion claims in the world for therapies that cure cancer; probably most of them sometimes work for some people. There is a book,
Brain Longevity (by Dharma Singh Khalsa,), that makes the point that you can't know which one therapy is best for optimum health, so try as many as make sense to you – they may act in synergy.

My particular approach included dietary changes, dietary supplements, Chinese herbs, weekly acupuncture, daily exercise, meditation, and increased sleep. Most of these changes I continue to follow (5 years post surgery), although I have relaxed much of the regimen over time.

Diet changes are the biggest. I eliminated most dairy, refined sugars, refined flours, and processed foods, and I switched from canola oil to butter, coconut or grapeseed oils for stir-frying. I have become mostly vegetarian and, when eating meat products, I try to stick with < ¼ lb per serving of organic products only. I also avoid fried foods, cured foods, and barbecue. I eat my blend of 9 whole grains for breakfast daily (See this link for the recipe and preparation instructions.) and I now subscribe to a Full Belly Farm box of organic vegetables delivered every other week. For diet, I strongly urge following Michael Pollan's guidelines in
In Defense of Food. Immediately after surgery, I took the advice of my Chinese and Western Nutrition instructor about taking dietary supplements. These included Vitamins A, C, E and selenium (antioxidants), vitamin B complex, cod liver oil, (for Vitamin D), flax oil (for omega-3s), alphalipoic acid, pycnogenol, a 'green' drink (concentrated powdered green vegetables including seaweeds), and digestive enzymes. It was a huge regimen. (Many of these supplements are also recommended in Brain Longevity). I tapered off most of the supplements after my 2-year post-surgery date as I believe that getting nutrients from whole foods is best. Now the only supplements I take are cod liver and flax oil. I took anti-cancer specific Chinese herbs for 2-1/2 years. These were prescribed by an acupuncturist who specialized in treating cancer patients. He provided me with herb powders that I drank as a tea 2-3 x / day, 4-6 days per week (about $100 for a 6 week supply). I bought and mixed the raw herbs and decocted those on weekends (about $200 for a 1-year supply). Talk to your oncologist before you start any Chinese herbs. As I was not a chemo patient, my doctors didn't care what I took, but I understand that many oncologists have objections to mixing Chinese and Western medicines. I also drank a homegrown kefir culture, for 20 days/month for 3 years and have recently started it up again. These days, I no longer take the anti-cancer herbs but I do take Chinese herb pills for boosting energy, blood, yin, and yang. Exercise-wise, I started off with the aim to do Tai Chi daily. After about a year, this became 3-5 times per week and now is about 2x / week, but I get daily exercise either by bicycle commuting or doing a minimum 3 minutes of stretches. I also took adult swimming lessons, which, I believe, contributed to the re-normalization of my blood pressure. For about 1.5 years, I meditated for at least 15 minutes at the end of each day. And for 5 years now, I have received weekly acupuncture treatments. From all indications, I do not have cancer currently and, in many ways, am healthier than I was 5 years ago. My blood markers for ovarian cancer are extremely low and my blood pressure has gone from borderline hypertension to normal. My cholesterol levels have remained very low – nowhere near the high levels of others in my family. My complexion is clearer, my flexibility and balance better, my pulse is stronger, and my tongue looks healthier (from a Chinese medicine standard); my friends say I look good and I feel good. I mention these because they are the markers that you will need to use as a measure of your own healthiness. I hope this helps you in charting your own course for living with a cancer diagnosis.
-Pam Chang