Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Rethinking Cancer Therapy

by Dr. Nicolas Kats

How to Prevent & Treat Cancer With Natural Medicine By Michael Murray, ND; Tim Birdsall, ND; Joseph Pizzorno, ND; Paul Reilly, MD (Riverhead Books, 2002) 415 pages: $16.00 paperback
Is There A Revolution in Cancer Treatment?

Cancer treatment in the US is going through a revolution. This new approach includes the integration of natural medicine at a growing number of hospitals. During the last four generations, the treatment of cancer was dominated by modern medicine. Three therapies were offered -- chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. All are highly invasive and may have severe side-effects. Yet overall cancer mortality remains a dissatisfying 50%, and both the severity of treatment and high mortality rate of cancer has fuelled a lively public interest in various natural therapies such as diet, herbs, supplements, detoxification, and so on. Because MDs typically have had no training in natural medicine, and because there were few scientific studies supporting or disproving natural medicine, such approaches were routinely rejected.

For a long time, this rejection compelled the public to obtain natural medicine separately. Hence the term 'alternative medicine'. Too often, the result was a hodgepodge of valid therapies and junk. All sort of therapies were tried and changed at whim. Many cancer sufferers went to clinics in Mexico or the Bahamas to obtain treatments banned in the US. Most alternative therapists themselves did not understand modern medicine and were unable to work in concert with medical treatments. In short, there was little or no communication between MDs and natural heath professionals.

Despite these limitations, the public continued at a prodigious rate to continue with the dual approach of medical treatment and some form of natural medicine. In response to such public interest in natural medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, national health departments, cancer researchers, supplement and herb companies funded and carried out numerous scientific studies to test the validity of various natural therapies in various settings. The result has been a vast outpouring of literature showing that many natural therapies are of great value in treating many diseases, including cancer.

The resulting flood of scientific validation, coupled with huge, ongoing public interest, has largely driven the recent movement which favours the integration of natural medicine in the treatment of cancer. A number of U.S. hospitals now offer integrated cancer centers where natural and modern medicines work in collaboration, and such centres now run in San Francisco, Tulsa, Minneapolis, Seattle, Zion, Illinois, Goshen, Indiana, Portland, Oregon and Hampton Roads. The last five are run by Cancer Centers of America, which is dedicated to integrated cancer care. Integration offers the hospitals enormous advantages. Natural medicine improves the efficiency of modern therapies, and drastically minimizes side effects. The process and outcome for patients are much more favourable. The atmosphere now is that those hospitals offering integrated care are increasingly seen as leaders, on the cutting edge of progress in health care, and I expect these hospitals to show better survival rates than their competitors. Integration is what many cancer patients want, and they will be drawn to hospitals offering this.

This is the context in which I discuss How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine. The four authors of the book, Drs Murray, Birdsall, Pizzorno and Reilly, as NDs (naturopathic physicians), are uniquely placed to contribute to the dialogue of integrated care. This is because the ND and MD have the same intensive training in the basic medical sciences. No other natural health profession systematically does this. This is why the ND understands modern medicine. In addition, the ND specializes in a number of natural therapies, including diet, supplements, herbal medicine, chiropractic, physiotherapy, etc, most largely proven.

This book contributes to the dialogue of integration and shows ways natural medicine complements modern medicine. Without this dialogue, modern medicine will tend to remain isolated, unable to include natural medicine. A consequence is that the public will continue to seek natural therapies elsewhere. An example is the problem of the devastating side effects of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy selectively inhibits or kills rapidly dividing cells, a characteristic of cancer. Certain normal tissues also have this characteristic -- hair follicles, red and white blood cells, and the lining of the digestive tract. Chemotherapy fails to distinguish between these healthy tissues and cancer, and it attacks both. Side effects include hair loss, anemia (inability to oxygenate all tissues and remove carbon dioxide, general fatigue), depleted white blood cells (or immunodeficiency, resulting in vulnerability to opportunistic infections and requiring massive antibiotics, and impairment of the immune system's ability to recognize and kill cancer cells), and digestive dysfunction (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and impaired absorption of nutrients). These side effects can be severe or fatal. They impair or negate the therapeutic objective of chemotherapy, which is to inhibit or destroy cancer cells.

Modern medicine has long struggled with this problem. Natural medicine is effective at greatly reducing and repairing these side effects. In discussing this, the authors always cite therapies proven by studies. For radiation and surgery the dynamics are similar, and these examples make clear the case for the integration of cancer treatment.

Another nice feature of the book is the material on supplements and herbs. Protein smoothies, so important for weight maintenance and for immune support, is covered. Proteolytic enzymes are discussed in the context of surgery, metastasis, angiogenesis and lymphedema. Aloe vera gel is suggested for radiation burns. The immunostimulant properties of mushrooms are covered, with honours given to maitake.

In the section on prevention, diet is central. Fiber, fruits and vegetables, whole vs. refined carbohydrates, animal meats, raw vs. processed polyunsaturated fatty acids, are discussed, always with reference to studies. This section is valuable both for healthy people interested in prevention and as part of the long term plan for people with cancer.

An illusion given by the book is its title How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine. This title suggests that the reader will learn "how to" treat cancer with natural medicine. This won't work. Cancer is complex. There are many kinds. There are various stages, from localized to metastasized. The cancer, the treatments, and the person's overall health, constantly change. There may not be much time to act. Self-treatment, guided by this or other books, is inappropriate. Most cancer patients require the reassurance of competent professional guidance. The book is best used as an educational tool.

The oncologist that picks up this book to learn "how to" use natural therapies will not get far. As a medical doctor, s/he does not have the training to understand natural medicine and will be an alien in a strange land, therefore likely be disappointed. Regardless, even for this practitioner the value of this book is the demonstration that these therapies are scientifically proven, and that they effectively enhance encological work.

A limitation of the book is its focus on cancer. The successful treatment of cancer requires also treating the whole person. In other words there are two ways to approach cancer -- the cancer itself, divorced from the person -- and the person apart from the cancer. For example, how to treat a person with cancer and a history of 20 years of digestive deficiency? Treating the cancer is self-evident, but what about the digestive deficiency? When digestion is poor the absorption of life-giving nutrients is compromised. If the problem continues, the prospects are poor. Resolving this problem will help the person and improve his prospects. NDs, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, and herbalists are very good at looking at the whole person. This is a tremendous strength. MDs, along with the media and the public, tend to be highly focused on cancer and to exclude the person.

Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are highly reductive. They may be characterized by one word: destructive. When repair and regeneration are needed, modern medicine is very weak. Natural medicine is the opposite. It excels in repair and regeneration. It is constructive. It has very few therapies that are intentionally used in a destructive way. These two ways of medicine -- one destructive, the other constructive -- form a striking polarity of opposite paradigms. Until recently they were separate. Given the limitations of modern medicine it is essential to incorporate natural medicine. The integration of natural health professionals at hospital cancer clinics is enormously appropriate and highly welcome. How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine is a valuable contribution to this revolution.

Dr Nicolas Kats, a naturopathic physician, lives and practices in the Republic of Ireland.