What is the role of complementary medicine in the fight against cancer?

I attended the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Conference last week in West Palm Beach and spent a day listening to keynote speakers present different ideas on battling cancer.  I spoke with a number of current/former cancer patients, and got to browse through the different booths set up in the exhibit rooms.  At the end of the day, I left with both more questions and more answers on what exactly is the role of complementary medicine in the fight against cancer.

Going in there, I didn’t really know WHAT to expect.  The agenda contained a combination of mainstream doctors, integrative oncologists, and some “untraditional” presenters.  Was this going to be like the button-down MRA medical conference, or a bunch of people wearing hemp and burning incense?   Having somewhat explored the fringes of cancer treatments, I was familiar with many of the ideas, but didn’t know if this would tie theories and treatments together, or radicalize for alternative therapies and against Western medicine.

Turns out, there was a bit of everything.  The atmosphere was much more relaxed, or less professional, depending on your viewpoint.  Presentations were blurry or hard to follow; until the clicker was located, the first presenter was tugging his ear to communicate “go to the next slide”.  One presenter was late and the time was filled with “questions” from the crowd that were really opinions with a “?” added at the end.   There was a raffle drawing every hour or so; the food and drink served were organic and really catered to the attendees.   The presentation, much like the content, was somewhat unorthodox.

The differences in the audience were apparent, too.  There was one guy in a Chinese kimono (two, actually – he changed outfits at some point).  A few people declined to shake hands, which I chalked up to the general “toxic-phobia” that runs through the alternative therapy community.  Some attendees ritualistically stretched after every presenter (and, at least once, during a presentation).  I heard quite a few interesting pitches –water alkalinity, “necessary” supplement intake, infrared saunas, and energy healing were among the alternative practices on display.  We’ll save their merits for a follow-up post, but suffice to say, there was no shortage of ideas well outside mainstream treatment.

It's easy to either dismiss or jump into this arena with both feet.  Even the common name of "alternative" treatments gives the impression that you are either "in" or "out", which is why “Complementary” is a part of the conference name – it brings a more moderate approach that focuses on all the "other" factors Western medicine often minimizes or outright ignores. The presenters themselves were not uneducated shysters peddling snake oil – there were real, accredited doctors speaking to real, credible ways to attack cancer. 

Keith Block, MD has an Integrative Cancer Center outside Chicago and was on my short list of “Plan C” even before I heard him speak.  He talked of getting away from the “silver bullet” approach to “curing” cancer, and made a great point:  “many patients don’t die from cancer, but from the proliferation of complications from disease”.  Their facility looks like a damn spa, and the approach is somewhat unique – get the body in the best shape possible to do what it does naturally (i.e. heal) while receiving modern medical treatments.  They do chronomodulated chemotherapy administration, giving chemo in low and targeted doses, often while the patient is active.  Photos of patients walking in the park or rollerblading down Lake Shore Drive gave the impression that chemotherapy there is quite a bit different from the ports and IVs dangling bags of dacarbazine or tamoxifen.

This all sounds great, right??  Let’s get all the views together and come up with a comprehensive plan to foil cancer.  Well… there’s a bit more to it than that.  The difficulty with accepting some findings and theories comes down to the difference between the two conferences - the MRA was a statistician’s dream, rooted in cold, hard data.  The Annie Appleseed conference, and the crowd it attracts, brings a lot of testimonials to the table, often (but not always) without credible supporting evidence of widespread success, and more importantly, overall success rates.  Survivor stories show it CAN be done, and are certainly inspirational.  Every cancer, and every person, is different, though, and just because raw foods or juicing or high-dose Vitamin C saved one person, does not mean it is the cure for all disease.  Outlier stories are everywhere – including in chemotherapy and modern Western medicine – and those aren't reliable measures of success.  So when someone tells me that X number of people have been cured using a certain alternative protocol, the one question I never get answered is “out of how many?”

Unfortunately, the scientific method and nearly all alternative therapies will never meet.  There are too many ethical risks in giving a questionable holistic protocol, much less randomizing patients to remove bias.  So we are left with sifting through a complementary medicine landscape that is long on one-off treatments and short on, but not completely devoid of, educated medical professionals with a background and passion for holistic healing.  You kind of have to trust your instincts sometimes, and be prepared to do a lot of homework to settle on what is right for you.

It was a really good experience, and I am glad I got to view similar illnesses through a different prism.  I was able to meet with several survivors who have bucked the mainstream medical advice and beat their disease through diet and nutrition; one of the speakers and I are writing a guest blog about her five-year journey through illness into remission and good health.  Those stories do show another way, albeit with unknown success odds.  Whether anything I heard will become part of mainstream medical treatments is still up for debate, but there is certainly a case to be made for many principles presented becoming integrated with our current standard of care.



T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »