When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, I knew that the track record for conventional oncology—some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormones–was not great. About 40,000 women die every year in the U.S. after having the conventional treatment, and many more are harmed by the serious, sometimes lethal, side effects. I wanted to find out if there were better options. I didn’t know much about alternative care—I knew that Suzanne Somers was a fan and I knew there were clinics in Mexico, but that’s about all. When I started looking into the literature, I found that there is almost no research about alternative treatments and practitioners. Alternatives just don’t get research grants, and it does seem like there may be a conspiracy to keep them suppressed. With no research, it’s virtually impossible to tell the geniuses from the quacks. We have to rely on things like patient reports and our intuition, which is way too scary for most of us to do when we have cancer. So what happens is that most people opt for the conventional route, and if that doesn’t work and if they have nothing further to lose, then they try alternatives. We know that some of them get better, but without research we don’t know why, and we can’t make good predictions for ourselves.
What I chose for myself was integrative care. That is, I brought an integrative oncologist on board to help me through my conventional treatment and to help me stay in remission afterward. An integrative oncologist is a physician who is trained both in conventional cancer treatments and also in complementary/alternative modalities. My integrative oncologist is a diplomate of the American Boards of Internal Medicine, Hematology and Medical Oncology; board certified in Nutrition; and board certified in Integrative and Holistic Medicine. It is a good idea to bring an integrative oncologist on board as early in your treatment as possible, because integrative oncology can make your treatment more successful. For example, it can help you recover more quickly from surgery and reduce the risk of bodily damage from the side effects of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Integrative oncologists believe that there are two parts to cancer treatment. The first part consists of conventional care–some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy. This is all that conventional oncology offers; after that is finished, there is no further treatment. Conventional cancer practice is to wait until there is a recurrence, and then to treat that. If there is no cancer that can be seen on tests, then there is no treatment. The problem is that when there is a recurrence, the cancer is usually no longer curable. My goal, therefore, is to try to prevent a recurrence, and this goal is not part of conventional oncology practice.
Integrative oncologists believe there is a second part to cancer care: to change the “terrain,” to make the body less hospitable to cancer. As of this writing, it has been six years since my conventional treatment, but because I am at high risk for recurrence, I keep up the integrative part. Most of us have cancer cells in our bodies; the issue is whether they remain dormant or grow, and that may be determined by our terrain. Every three or four months, I get a blood test to check for my levels of oxidation, inflammation, immunity, glycemia, blood coagulation, and stress chemistry, because these are things that have been shown to affect the body’s response to cancer.1 Whenever something needs correcting, I address the problem with prescription drugs and nutraceuticals as well as a diet and exercise regimen and various forms of mental hygiene and stress reduction. I expect to keep this up for the rest of my life.
Because of my high risk, I have thought quite a bit about what I would do if the cancer came back, in my breast or in other parts of my body. In the years since my conventional treatment I have continued my research, and as a result, I have come to have less and less confidence in conventional oncology. The possible benefits need to be weighed against the very significant sources of harm. There has been a great deal of very convincing research showing that cancer can be spread in several different ways by surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. (The links are to blogs in which I explain the research and also my suspicion that I may have been harmed more than helped by my own treatment.) It would take a lot to convince me to go that route again.
Meanwhile, I have been exploring alternatives. I have been reading a lot, including Suzanne Somers, and I have gone on a tour of the cancer clinics in Tijuana, which seem to be pretty representative of alternative clinics in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Some of them have their own unconventional methods, but they also have certain things in common. Instead of focusing on trying to kill the cancer, they seem to focus more on building up the patient’s immune systems. They emphasize nutrition (organic, mostly plant based, and purified water), herbs and supplements, and respect for the mind-body connection. In contrast to conventional cancer treatment, these treatments tend to be non-toxic and they include different diagnostic tests in addition to the usual scans and blood tests. One of the tests commonly used by alternative clinics but not commonly used in conventional cancer care is for chemosensitivity, which can indicate whether or not chemotherapy will be effective. I would never again agree to chemotherapy without a chemosensitivity test that predicted that my treatment would work.
My exploration of alternative treatments is a work in progress, and the progress is slow because of the lack of research. Other people are compiling data too. Kelly Turner is gathering data about unexplained remissions, and the data is available on her Radical Remission website. Ty Bollinger is not compiling data, but he is exploring the available alternatives in his series, The Truth About Cancer. Ralph Moss discusses options for cancer care on the Moss Reports. The Cancer Control Society has lists of alternative doctors and of patients who are willing to be contacted. There are more, and I will be writing updates as I learn more.
- Discussed in Block, Keith. Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment. New York: Bantam Dell, 2009, pp. 295-428. (go back)