In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war” on cancer because it was a leading cause of death in the United States. Since then, the federal government and private industry spent over $200 billion trying to develop a cure. Today, cancer is still a leading cause of death, second only to heart disease. We have made great advancements in our understanding of cancer, technology used in surgery, and arsenal of chemotherapeutic drugs, yet these conventional therapies have not provided a reliable “cure”. Without definitive results, the time and money spent developing conventional treatments should raise the question, are we approaching cancer treatment from all possible angles? Alternative therapies are one angle not accepted by the mainstream medical community. They are not FDA approved, and cancer patients are left alone to research and implement alternative therapies. Even though current medical dogma does not include alternative therapies as valid treatments, cancer patients seek them anyway. Alternative therapies offer cancer patients a higher quality of life and whole body wellness, something that traditional therapies do not. When hope for a “cure” is tenuous, as it is for many approved conventional treatments, the countless success stories from alternative therapies justify serious focus and attention. In a fight for their life, cancer patients deserve an open discussion with their doctors, collaboratively working on anything, conventional or alternative, that will help them fight their cancer.
When conventional treatments cannot offer patients a chance of a cure, but merely symptom relief, as in most cases of mesothelioma or pancreatic cancer , it is logical for patients to seek an alternative that can give them hope. Some cancer patients, however, are unwilling to suffer the short term side effects or accept the risk of long term damage from conventional therapies, despite their reasonable chance of success. When my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, she was put on a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. Throughout her treatment she experienced debilitating side effects, of nausea, vomiting, pain, and light sensitivity. Her quality of life was so terrible; she swore never to go through it again. Well after her treatment, she continued to suffer from light sensitivity and a decrease in her body’s ability to heal even small injuries. Though my mother was deemed “cured”, the biggest risk came to light, ten years later, when she was diagnosed with metastasized uterine cancer. The doctors attributed the development of her new round of cancer to the radiation treatment she received so many years prior. Despite her doctor’s belief that undergoing conventional cancer treatments would buy her some time, my mother refused. Rather than experience such a decreased quality of life again, she sought out an intensive alternative nutritional therapy.
The FDA seal of approval on cancer treatments is little comfort for those patients battling cancer. One purpose of the FDA is to ensure the “human drugs, vaccines and other biological products and medical devices intended for human use, are safe and effective”. But for FDA approved cancer therapy, their “safety” is questionable. Designed to affect cancer cells more, chemotherapy’s toxicity, however, cannot be isolated from a patient’s healthy tissues. Radiation can be targeted to localize the cancerous region, but must go through, and consequentially, radiate healthy tissue. The short term side effects experienced by my mother, similar to that of poisoning, did not make her feel “safe”. And the fact she developed a secondary cancer as a result of her radiation exposure is further evidence of the dangers of conventional treatments. Patients may lose confidence in the FDA when it approves treatments with deadly radiation and poisons, which deteriorate and jeopardize a patient’s health. Many alternative therapies focus on flooding the body with nutrients and eliminating stressors in a patient’s life; making the body stronger, rather than weakening it. As a result, patients feel alternative therapies to be far safer, and therefore have little concern about the lack of FDA safety approval. When choosing a treatment, conventional or alternative, patients must weigh side effects and impacts to quality of life against a treatment’s likelihood of effectiveness.
Effectiveness is the root of the debate between conventional versus alternative therapies. Orthodox medicine does not believe in alternative therapies efficacy, and does not want to give patients false hope by offering them as potential treatments. However, FDA approved “effective” cancer treatments do not guarantee results either. Over half a million people died of cancer last year alone , a sad testament to the ineffectiveness of current cancer treatments. How a patient’s cancer responds to conventional therapies varies widely, and each patient can only hope for success. With no guarantees, false hope is as much of a reality for conventional therapy as for alternatives. By labeling alternative therapies as a false hope, conventional doctors are ignoring valuable information and even discrediting the countless lives of those telling success stories.
One alternative treatment success story of note is that of James “Rhio” O’Conner. At the age of 61, Rhio was diagnosed with mesothelioma; a rare cancer of the protective sac surrounding the internal organs. Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which Rhio was exposed to when he was younger. Mesothelioma is largely unresponsive to radiation or chemotherapy; and Rhio’s tumor location prohibited surgery. Told he only had a short time to live, Rhio refused to accept his prognosis. With extensive research of his own, he developed an alternative therapy that focused on nutrition and mind-body medicine. His alternative therapy, determination, and incredible spirit allowed Rhio to live 7 years beyond the expectations of his doctors. Rhio’s success is hard to ignore, and demonstrates the effectiveness of an alternative for cancer patients. Someone with the same prognosis, who may be less resourceful or determined, might accept conventional medicines’ inability to help. Don’t all patients deserve to hear about Rhio’s and other patients successes?
Until a true cure for cancer has been discovered, be it “conventional” or “alternative”, or some combination of the two, doctors should engage in open discussion of all cancer therapies. Seeking the advice of a doctor is paramount in making major health decisions, but advice is only an opinion or recommendation offered as a guide to action. Just because a doctor does not endorse alternative therapies, he should still discuss them as an option with his patients. By leaving out potential therapies, doctors are no longer serving as a guide for action, but making choices for a patient. Rather than making choices for their patients, doctors should deliver unbiased information so that patients have the tools to make rational, informed decisions regarding their treatment. Additionally, when presented with more than one treatment option, patients gain a sense of empowerment as a result of taking an active role in their fight.
It is said we cannot accept what we do not understand, and so it is time to increase our understanding. Rather than brushing aside alternative therapy successes as outliers, they should be studied and learned from. Instead of leaving patients to implement alternative therapies alone, doctors should be active listeners and observers. Collaboration between doctors and patients will provide the means for a clearer understanding of what alternative therapies truly offer. In time, success stories like James “Rhio” O’Conner’s will no longer be outliers, as clearer and more comprehensive therapies emerge. By embracing the angle alternative therapies bring to cancer treatments, the need to differentiate between alternative versus conventional therapy may pass. With a broader understanding of cancer and the human body we may find our cure.
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