Our policy as a charity is to stick to tried and true cancer treatment but there are complementary therapies that might provide comfort and enhance health. Here is a personal attempt to clarify the somewhat murky field of alternative and complementary treatments.
Conventional medicine: used in hospitals around the world
Complementary medicine: works with conventional medicine to help the patient feel better
Alternative: instead of conventional treatment
Evidence based medicine: based on the scientific method, ie the collection of data
Anecdotal evidence: based on personal observation
Apart from the increasing hope that immunotherapy will help more of us, treatment for head and neck cancer is still “slash, burn and poison”. The therapies that work are harsh: surgery, radiotherapy and chemo.
Read “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee for the history of cancer treatment. You’ll find the earliest records of cancer surgery and the beginnings of radio- and chemotherapy. They were discovered, tried and tested and for many early cancers they provided cures, becoming more and more adept as the years went on.
Not so long ago radiotherapy was even more savage and it wasn’t until intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) came in in about 2005, that head and neck cancer patients could survive without a high risk of bone death (osteoradionecrosis).
Chemotherapy caused severe nausea until anti-nausea medications like Domperidone were introduced.
These therapies are based on science and data. They have been tested in double blind trials over and over again. We know they work for vast numbers of people although there is no one cure for cancer yet.
Alternative therapies have long been touted: apricot kernels, green-lipped mussels. Banner headlines in the Herald and then … nothing. They just don’t work. Alternative means what it says, an alternative to conventional treatment. Sometimes something works for someone. Or you know someone who took something and it worked but is not backed up by science. This is anecdotal evidence and it usually doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. You’ll often find that the person who was seemingly cured by something was taking conventional treatment too.
Anecdotes such as patients’ stories can be useful though to fill in the gaps in the data through the lived experience of patients.
If apricot kernels (actually toxic) did cure cancer and thousands of people in a study responded to it, someone would package the mechanism or chemical involved and doctors would prescribe it. Our own Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre is conducting research on foodstuffs to see if they are effective in cancer prevention
But as a cancer charity we can’t back alternative therapies – that would be irresponsible. Cancer needs to be excised or radiated as soon as possible with no delays to try alternatives.
We have such a strong desire to put only healthy things in our body that we naturally baulk at radiation and chemo. At the same time we fear death by cancer and seek healthier ways to heal ourselves. That makes us vulnerable to hoaxes and over-hyped, expensive alternatives. I was so desperate when I was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer that I went to a highly praised naturopath who was also a medical doctor. He was the rudest, cruellest practitioner I have ever met. He blamed me for my cancer and told me he would not see me again if I had chemotherapy.
What made him like that? His wife had died of cancer, he’d felt helpless and had convinced himself that homoeopathy would work.
Not long after that I had a second opinion, had five months of chemotherapy – Cisplatin and Taxol – and never looked back.
Obviously that experience reinforced my natural scepticism and that extended to complementary therapies too. With these I often look up the Cochrane Report for a summary of research undertaken.
Complementary therapies are treatments that can help alongside conventional therapies. These are things like aromatherapy, massage, rongoā Maori – there’s a long list and they are certainly not frowned on by mainstream health services but rarely funded. My sceptical brain thinks they work for some because of the placebo effect but I could be wrong here. If research is starting to show that exercise can slow down cancer, then it is possible that massage or a keto diet could have an effect too. (I’m not convinced but I have to open my mind up a bit.)
And if a complementary treatment is comforting and delivered with TLC it’s a good thing for stressed out cancer patients who are not sceptical like me.
HOPE FOR BETTER TREATMENTS
In spite of all this I do have hope. I believe that one day soon researchers will find a way to make immunotherapy work for more of us. They just have to find the magic switch to make our immune systems kill the cancer cells. They have to get good data so that Pharmac will fund it. There are other therapies on the horizon for us too, like gene engineering.
Immunotherapy seems to be much gentler than surgery, radio and chemo.
As for me, I’ve been kept alive over six cancer diagnoses by conventional medicine. It hasn’t been pretty but I’m alive and kicking. I’ve found a new joy: helping restore our environment by planting native trees in reserves and weeding around them. Hundreds of people round the Bays joining forces to restore our native fauna and flora, stabilise the land and stop run off into rivers and estuaries. It’s like an anti-cancer.
Trouble is, my back hurts like mad. I was going to ring a physio but a friend has convinced me to go to an osteopath.
(PS, I couldn’t help looking up osteopathy and in spite of glowing reports from friends, I’m disenchanted. I’m going to a physio!)