Written By: Dr. Adam McLeod, ND, BSc (Hons)
Recently there have been a surge in patients seeking alternative cures for cancer after watching the popular series “The Truth About Cancer”. This series does an excellent job of raising awareness about various natural therapies but it does patients a great disservice by discouraging patients from using conventional therapies. This documentary has given patients a biased view point and as a consequence they feel very polarized in their opinion against conventional care. The problem is that the best treatment plan involves integrating these two worlds together. Both conventional therapies and natural therapies have a lot that they can offer patients but they must be used together in a synergistic way for optimal results.
Patients have the right to choose what ever treatment plan they want. As a Naturopathic physician I have always respected my patients choices, even if I disagree with that choice. It is not my job to force the patient to choose a treatment plan, it is my job to give them the information and then they choose the treatment plan that feels right to them. When developing a treatment plan the key word is “integrative” not “alternative”. This means using natural tools safely and effectively in conjunction with conventional therapies. An integrative approach is what any licensed naturopathic doctor would be recommending and unfortunately this documentary confuses the public by giving them the impression that naturopathic doctors are against conventional cancer treatments. By presenting such a polarized view it often discourages patients from seeking true integrative care that could really benefit them.
Make no mistake about it, I am a big believer in the healing power of nature but this series greatly exaggerates the effectiveness of many natural therapies. Of course there are home runs with simple natural therapies. I have personally witnessed on many occasions where patients have dramatic responses to the simplest natural therapies. Although these responses are amazing and they require further investigation, it does not mean that everyone should abandon all conventional therapies in favour of an alternative approach. What the documentary fails to document is the many people who chose to pursue only alternative therapies and had poor responses. Cancer is unforgiving of delays and poor choices. It is true that chemotherapy, radiation and surgery have side effects but cancer has side effects too.
Many of the natural therapies that this documentary chooses to highlight are not commonly recommended by experts who work in the integrative oncology field. Things like baking soda and apricot seeds are not mainstream natural cancer therapies and have virtually no evidence of being effective. There are countless natural therapies which are more effective than this and which are well supported by scientific evidence. Not all cancers are the same and you must have professional guidance when developing a plan. Many natural therapies are completely contraindicated in certain cancers and just because it is natural does not mean that it is universally safe.
Of course there are times where the use of chemotherapy is questionable. In some circumstances the cancer is unlikely to respond to the drug and intensive therapies are being recommended to only slightly extend life expectancy. In these cases the lowered quality of life must be weighed against the increased life expectancy. There are certainly cases like this where the medical oncologists are only recommending such therapies because there are no other options. It is not unreasonable for patients to resist conventional care in some of these extreme circumstances.
The key thing to recognize is that this does not apply to all cases of cancer. Conventional cancer treatments save lives when used in a timely fashion. The study cited in the series that states the ineffectiveness of chemotherapy is not presenting this information properly. This study is questioning the use of chemotherapy in the context of 5 year survival rate. By the time many of these cancers in the study were diagnosed, the disease had already greatly progressed and it is unlikely that anyone would live for 5 years, regardless of what therapy they choose.
When you take the time to dig deeper into the study it is clear that in many of these cancers the patients are living significantly longer but many of them are not living up to the 5 year mark. In this particular study someone could live for several years with a great quality of life but if they died at 4 years and 11 months then the chemotherapy would be considered ineffective. Obviously if a patient is able to live longer with a good quality of life, this is a success even if they don’t live for 5 years. The public is often left with this false impression that all chemotherapy leaves patients with a crippled quality of life. Certainly some chemotherapies significantly decrease quality of life but not all chemotherapy is the same. Particularly when patients are well supported they have significantly less side effects and can live with a great quality of life. It is not unusual for me to have a patient come to my office who has minimal side effects even when doing an intense round of chemotherapy because they are well supported naturally during this process.
You will never have all studies agree as this is how science works. We cannot base our clinical decisions on one study, we must base it on the totality of the evidence. A quick literature search will find thousands of peer reviewed studies demonstrating the effectiveness of chemotherapy for a wide range of cancers. I have had many patients in the past refuse conventional care against my advice and fly to exotic clinics around the world to receive alternative therapies. During these unnecessary delays the cancer spread to the point that it was no longer curable. In some of these cases I was confident that the patient could have been easily cured had they not hesitated.
Natural therapies can be used to help support patients through conventional treatments. They can help to significantly reduce side effects and support the immune system. When patients have this support not only do they respond better to therapy, they are more likely to embrace both therapies as their answer to this terrible disease. Often those who are the most polarized in their opinions against an integrative approach are people with little to no experience dealing with cancer. These two worlds can coexist and it is a beautiful thing when there is true collaboration.
The bottom line is that a balanced approach is best. The extreme view that no natural therapies work is simply incorrect. Just as the extreme view that only natural therapies should be used is inaccurate. The best treatment plan is an integrative approach which bridges these two worlds. Many patients get scared away from conventional therapies because their oncologist presents the treatments with such a polarized point of view. When you are trained as a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This becomes obvious to many patients after meeting with their oncologist who has a limited set of tools to offer. There are a vast range of natural therapies that can be used to help your body fight cancer but they have to be used in the proper clinical context. A Naturopathic doctor who works with oncology can help to give you a more balanced view and develop a treatment plan that utilizes the best of both worlds.
Dr. McLeod is currently accepting new patients at Yaletown Naturopathic Clinic, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to book an appointment or for more information about integrative oncology treatments. Yaletown Naturopathic is also one of only a few clinics in all of North America who offers Loco Regional Hyperthermia to patients who qualify for this treatment.
Get well. Stay well.