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Conventional vs Alternative Medicine

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer over 3 years ago, I have made myself a layman expert on the subject.  Particularly in the early days, I did extensive reading on the nature of breast cancer, treatments for breast cancer, outcomes of breast cancer and the like. I figured that the best way to give myself the edge in surviving this disease was to educate myself on it and become my own advocate.  I read articles from the scientific journals on breast cancer research and as well as information on alternative therapies.  One of the things that I learned early on is that opinions on cancer treatment, particularly those expressed by people not actually sick from the disease, are extremely polarized.  In one camp are those who believe whole-heartedly in “conventional” treatment and think alternative therapies are anecdotal, lack scientific basis therefore are not valid or worth pursuing.  In the other camp are the alternative therapy champions who believe conventional treatment for cancer is more harmful than helpful and that the body is capable of healing itself if given the right combination of herbs and diet.  My descriptions of these two camps is over-simplified but for the sake of comparison, accurate enough.  As a cancer patient, I found myself wondering why these two concepts must be mutually exclusive.  Can I not accept the merits of both and adopt a combination of the two approaches in my particular treatment path?

Proponents of modern medicine lean more towards the external for causes and treatments of disease.  Critics would say that it focuses too much on the external and not enough on our internal systems to achieve a positive outcome. To some extent I think that is true. For example, I asked my doctor early on what I could be doing diet-wise to aid in my treatment and she said there was nothing I could do…that it would not really make a difference what I ate. Critics also say that there is no money in health…the money is in developing patentable means to treat sick people. Therefore, there is a great deal of research in developing drugs to treat sickness and not enough research in addressing how to prevent the sickness in the first place. I think this is also true. Even assuming that the intentions of drug companies are altruistic and not solely profit-based (a wild assumption, I know), the reality is that research is expensive and if you can’t patent and sell the results of your research, then you aren’t going to fund it to begin with. Herbs and dietary recommendations can’t be patented, therefore are not going to receive any focus in the pharmaceutical industry.  Having said that, only the most extreme opponents would deny the value of many treatments that have come out of conventional medical thinking. Consider one of the conventional drugs I am still on, Herceptin. It has been an undeniable breakthrough for people diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer disease, which refers to cancer tumors that overexpress the HER2 growth hormone receptor and therefore attract the HER2 growth hormone, resulting in rapid growth and spread. A decade ago, people with this diagnosis usually died within 2 years of due to the aggressiveness of the disease. Herceptin, which is a targeted drug that blocks HER2 receptors, has allowed people with HER2 breast cancer to far exceed survival expectations. In fact, one of the original recipients of Herceptin in clinical trial has been stable on Herceptin for over 20 years.  I have been on that drug since the beginning and hope to have a similar response to it.

Proponents of alternative medicine believe in the body’s natural defenses to either prevent illness from ever happening or cure illness by means of a healthy immune system. There are merits to this argument as well.  Even with our limited understanding of the body’s immune system, it is clear that incredible mechanisms exist within ourselves to withstand and overcome the variety of insults that are thrown at it every moment of our existence.  If a perfect world existed where we understood everything about how these systems worked and how to properly fuel and optimize these systems to ensure perfect working order, we would rarely, if ever, need synthetic drugs because our bodies would be enough. I believe that  food is as powerful a drug as those that are developed in a laboratory. The problem is, we DON’T have definitive explanations to explain why this is. Even if sufficient funds existed outside the private industry that were not influenced by private, profit-based enterprises (a wild assumption, I know), how do we employ the scientific method, which seeks to isolate single variables for experimentation, to a complex biological system which employs a multitude of variables and pathways to achieve an particular outcome?  As a result, attempts to study this and provide definitive dietary claims are so rife with confounding factors that they are too subject to interpretation and therefore are of limited value, in my opinion.  Take for example a long term study on the effect of how low-fat eating influences rates of heart attacks among men in a certain age group. The results can be easily skewed by factors such as how consistently the participants followed the diet, a genetic propensity towards heart disease, by the eating habits that the participant had before the study, environmental influences where the person lives (such as pesticide contamination)…the list goes on. Therefore, the results require interpretation, which is influenced by the history and bias of the person interpreting the study….hence the raging debate over the validity of the low-fat eating recommendation.  Having said that, not many would deny the anecdotal evidence that exists to support the positive effect of eating unadulterated whole food.  I have seen the benefits of such eating in my own life just in the way I feel and I believe it has influenced my positive response to breast cancer treatment. I don’t need a scientific, double-blind study to know that listening to my body is my best tool in this fight.

In carefully considering the conventional vs alternative medicine arguments, therefore, I believe that with what is known today, both arguments have merit, therefore both have a place in my approach to healing. In a perfect world, if I had known everything I needed to know to live and eat in such a way that would prevent my disease in the first place, that is certainly a direction I would have favored. However, no one knows definitively why people get breast cancer and what to do to prevent it. Now I have breast cancer and I have it extensively. It started in my left breast and spread to other parts of my body before I even realized I had it. Prevention is no longer an option for me and I do not believe that my body is capable of affecting a cure on its own.  If it was, why would I be sick in the first place?  Therefore, I turned to conventional medicine to aid in my treatment. I had drugs administered that are so toxic, the chemotherapy nurses had to gown and glove up to administer them to me.  I had radiation to treat cancer, when everyone knows that radiation causes cancer. I did these things because they are the best “conventional” treatments that we know about today. Along with these conventional means, I adopted alternative methods to aid in my treatment. I started learning as much as I could about our food system and made what I think are positive changes in how I look at food and the things I eat. I tried to limit my exposure to pesticides and hormones by eating organic when possible. I started doing yoga and practicing better breathing and relaxation. I eliminated as many stressors as possible from my life by doing such things as retiring from a demanding job and simplifying my finances.  I did these things because they are the best “alternative” ways that we know today to support our body’s natural defenses. I am currently NED, which means “no evidence of disease” and I believe that I achieved this state because of the combination of conventional and alternative practices.

I continue to be skeptical of extreme points of view in either camp.  I disregarded the statement my oncologist made that my diet would have no impact on my treatment because I believe logically that the food you ingest has a powerful impact on your well-being.  I disregard the notion that because conventional research is largely profit-based, it has no merit. In my opinion, the fact that drug companies are motivated by profit does not necessarily mean that the drugs they develop do not have value. Can we cure illness without them? In many cases I am confident we can. In my case, I was not willing to take that risk.  I disregard claims that this or that drink or supplement is a “cancer cure” and that this has been kept a secret so that the conventional cancer treatment industry does not collapse.  In my opinion, it is hard to accept that once you have cancer there is some secret juice drink or herbal supplement that is going to cure such a complex disease.  I believe that the snake oil salesmen that push such a assertions are also trying to make a profit in the most reprehensible and irresponsible way – by praying on the fear and panic every cancer patient and their love ones feel.  In my opinion, it is worse than what drug companies do because at least drug companies have to provide some level of evidence that their product has value before it can approved for treatment, whereas these so-called “natural” alternatives only need to say it.  I believe that a responsible alternative approach to healing through diet and lifestyle is viable but that other “natural” cures that appear to be too simple or easy to implement, probably are.

The treatment path I chose was my own personal choice and has so far been effective for me. Only time will tell whether or not I achieve my goal of long term survival. However, the complexity of cancer and the human body ensure that no two people respond in the same way to the same treatments.  Therefore I would never try and advocate that people mimic the path I have chosen in terms of their own treatments. What I do advocate is that people remain open to ALL their options, conventional and alternative, avoid “cancer cure” claims that have no basis in logic, and choose the path that makes sense for their situation, their goals, and their bodies.