James “Rhio” O’Connor was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, and was given a year to live. Mesothelioma develops in the protective lining of the body’s internal organs and is most common in the pleura (lungs), pericardium (heart), and the peritoneum (abdominal cavity). The majority of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma has a latency period of no less than fifteen years and a mean latency period of 32 years. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, coughing up blood, and weight-loss. The prognosis is quite grim with mesothelioma and many patients are only given a few months to a year to live. Faced with this information Rhio decided to fight his cancer by creating his own treatment protocol including natural supplements, a healthy and primarily vegetarian diet, and the use of medicine that focused on both the mind and the body. Rhio’s use of alternative or non-traditional treatments and his positive out-look on life is credited with helping him beat his diagnosis and live with an “incurable” cancer for many more years than orthodox medical providers thought possible. A scholarship was started in Rhio’s honor and applicants write an essay addressing the role of alternative treatments in the treatment of cancer.
What role should alternative treatments play in the fight against cancer and what risks are involved? One of the first issues to arise in the alternative versus orthodox treatment debate is that of scientific and medical over-sight. Orthodox treatments go through lengthy and extremely costly testing and approval processes while most alternative treatments have little to no regulation. It can easily be argued that the only reason alternative treatments are not regulated and tested is because there is little money to be made in treatments that are widely available to the public; which is in stark contrast to patentable and lucrative orthodox treatments. Why would anyone invest millions of dollars in researching something that could not be patented? Conversely, just because a treatment has not gone through scientific and medical trials does not mean that it is useless. Few people, even in orthodox medical fields, would argue that every alternative treatment is useless. However, since it is very hard to determine what treatments, what doses, and what protocols work it is very hard for the medical and scientific establishment to recommend any alternative treatments. This can be out of uncertainty as much as fear of malpractice lawsuits. How can this mindset be changed and should it be?
A personal experience helped me to formulate my answer to this question. My mother, Lucy, and a friend’s father, John, both had long, yet very differently fought, battles with cancer. John fought his cancer for years with every treatment his doctors could think of. He tried every extreme form of chemotherapy, radiation, clinical trial, surgery, etc. and lived for many more years than his doctors expected. John put his faith in orthodox medicine and it paid off. Lucy was a very different patient. She was skeptical of orthodox medicine and was quite simply scared of chemotherapy and other orthodox treatments. She did finally relent to chemotherapy and with very positive results. However, the side-effects took a toll and when her oncologist scheduled her a one month break from treatment she decided, against the advice of her doctor, to take a two-month break; during which she pursued alternative treatments. After the two months she learned that her cancer had not only returned to its earlier levels but had progressed to the point of becoming terminal. Although there is no definite way to know, Lucy’s doctors, and myself, felt that it was this extra month off chemotherapy, spent focusing on alternative treatments that allowed the cancer to progress and eventually take her life.
If the story of John and Lucy were to end here it would be quite the glowing endorsement of orthodox medicine and a severe indictment of alternative medicine leading a patient to make self-destructive choices. I must admit that is exactly how I looked at the situation and I was angry with my mother and her alternative practitioners for quite some time. This is not, however, the end of the story. If only the number of weeks, months, and years the patient was able to live is taken into consideration then John made the right choice and Lucy made the wrong one. This does not address the quality of each extra week, month, and year that the patient lives through. In the case of John he was able to live with his cancer for many years and there were times when things were good. Sadly, a lot of the time John got because of his orthodox treatments was marred by the horrible and crippling side effects that came with them. This was paired with his unwillingness to talk about his situation, except in the most clinical medical terms, with family or a therapist. He played the role of the stoic fighter and was rewarded with many extra years of life that were often spent sick, sad and/or angry.
Just as Lucy took the opposite approach to orthodox treatments compared to John, so did she when addressing her mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. As with almost every cancer patient Lucy had negative side effects from her orthodox treatments and these helped to persuade her to pursue alternative treatments. Many supporters of orthodox treatments, myself included at the time, thought that it was a fear of side effects and personal weakness that makes patients look for easier and more comfortable alternative treatments. This viewpoint does not take into account how different the mental and physical dispositions of individuals can be nor is it a fair assessment of the benefits alternative treatments can have. John surely took pride and found strength in being the relentless fighter and yet he was still troubled mentally and emotionally. Lucy would not have found pride or strength in fighting as he had but she did find them in her pursuit of alternative treatments. Although Lucy did not live as long as John did she did spend her remaining years happier and more comfortable.
Lucy continued her chemotherapy treatments while also using homeopathic, ayruvedic, and other alternative treatments. She maintained a close relationship with her oncologist but also saw/spoke with a medical doctor specializing in a mind/body approach to orthodox medicine, a therapist, an ayurvedic practitioner, and many family members. It was the significant difference in Lucy’s emotional health that changed the way I think of alternative cancer treatments. Her relationship with her family was strengthened and she slept better, had less stress, and most importantly she approached death with acceptance and grace, all while fighting the cancer with orthodox chemotherapy. Although I do believe that Lucy’s extra month off chemotherapy accelerated her cancer and led to an earlier death I no longer blame it for her death. Her cancer would have been terminal either way and with the use of alternative treatments she was able to significantly improve the quality of her life. However, if she had been more open to orthodox methods and followed her chemotherapy protocol she most likely would have lived longer.
My friend, John’s daughter, and I joked that each of our respective parents needed to learn a lesson from the other. I would have liked to see more of the fighter’s spirit and adherence to orthodox treatments in Lucy and my friend would have liked to see John address his mental and emotional well-being. What role should alternative treatments play in the fight against cancer and what risks are involved? The story of John and Lucy and the lessons they could have learned from each other shows how alternative and orthodox approaches to cancer should be balanced. Until alternative treatments are able to be fully tested and scientific, rather than anecdotal, evidence can be given in support of their efficacy a balance of alternative and orthodox treatments should be the suggested protocol for all cancer patients. Orthodox practitioners need to be comfortable suggesting that patients look into alternative treatments, without directly endorsing specific treatments. Hopefully this would result in more patients finding the balance of treatments that work best for them. As more people are exposed to alternative treatments there will be more pressure to have them thoroughly tested and the treatments that are effective will be more likely to be used by others fighting cancer. Ideally the end result will be a more comprehensive treatment protocol including a balance of orthodox and alternative treatments that not only addresses a patient’s physical well-being but also their mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.