When Leslie was forty eight years old, she discovered a large tumor in her breast. After anxiously awaiting her results, the surgeon advised her that her tumor was very aggressive – a grade three that was “triple negative”. Twenty five out of twenty six of her lymph nodes had cancer in them. Bad news! Leslie was scared, but also feisty and optimistic. She was realistic enough to know that her cancer was aggressive, and she was going to need all the help she could get to stack the odds in her favor. That’s when we met.
She booked an appointment in my integrative oncology practice which bridges conventional oncology and natural medicine. She was going to do everything in her power to heal - she wanted to have the strongest, most effective conventional treatment while safely integrating natural agents. We created a plan, together with her oncologist, to boost her immune system, lower inflammation and keep her digestive tract strong.
Each step of the way, as conventional oncology was aiming to cure her cancer, we were keeping Leslie’s underlying terrain healthy and strong. When Leslie was fatigued from chemotherapy, she had reiki at our cancer center and took melatonin[i]. When chemotherapy started to damage the nerves in her feet, she received peripheral neuropathy massage. Before she went for surgery, she used customized guided imagery[ii] to mentally prepare. Leslie won the heart of every staff member she encountered in our Integrative Medicine Department at Beaumont Hospitals. Her hugs were full of light.
Towards the end of her chemotherapy, Leslie and I began to look ahead to sustaining her health. We spoke about aiming for a nutrient-dense, real-food diet, and letting go of diet perfectionism. We discussed her support system, her spiritual beliefs, and the lessons she felt that she was learning on her cancer journey. I worried about her at times because I knew she was at risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An estimated one in four breast cancer patients develop PTSD after their cancer treatment[iii]. Leslie was young, single and had a history of anxiety, which are all risk factors[iv]. Mercifully, cancer seemed to strengthen her – strengthen her relationships, her sense of priorities, and her connection to God.
Leslie got through nine months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and three months of expanding her skin before reconstructive surgery. When her oncologist told her she was finally done, she came to me in a panic, saying there had to be more she could do to be proactive. She couldn’t just suddenly be “done”.
We created a survivorship plan, starting with basic blood work to assess her nutritional status, blood sugar regulation, inflammation level and immunity. We optimized her vitamin D and restored her zinc levels which had been depleted by chemotherapy. We kept her copper levels low for many years[v]. Leslie used green tea capsules and turmeric to lower inflammation, and she took a mindfulness course to help with stress management. Her survivorship plan changed here and there, but the foundations were stress reduction, real food, and joyful exercise.
I have tears of joy on my face as I write that Leslie had her 5 year “cancerversary” this past Spring. She told me that she thinks she has survived five years because of naturopathic oncology. I’m not sure. I think she wouldn’t have survived without her phenomenal conventional care team. I think she also maintained her wholeness because of naturopathic medicine. I’m just happy she’s here, and grateful that we could create a care team for her that helped her avoid unnecessary suffering, and kept her whole. Leslie deserved it.
While we all need stories of success like Leslie’s, a deeply troubling trend is emerging where cancer patients are pulled between two opposing camps, and are forced to choose either natural or conventional care.
On one end of the spectrum lie natural “experts” who run websites or create documentaries on alternative cancer cures. Patients who rely on these sources come into my office already planning to refuse all conventional care because it can’t possibly be healthy to choose something that Big Pharma offers. The natural “protocols” they plan to use to beat cancer are presumably designed for all cancer types, apply regardless of underlying health conditions, and involve megadose vitamins and herbs because “if it is natural, it’s safe”. The higher the dose, the better…
On the other end of the spectrum, lie some of the less progressive oncologists. They advise against any natural therapy whatsoever, and create rifts in their therapeutic relationships by failing to acknowledge patients’ beliefs in complementary medicine. They insist that natural supportive care makes no difference to patient outcomes. When confronted with randomized controlled trials showing improved quality of life and survivorship[vi], they respond with comments such as “well, those RCT’s were done in Japan so they probably aren’t reproducible here”. Patients are sometimes given overt misinformation about the actual benefits of treatments along with comments like “well, you want to be around to raise your children, don’t you?” The opinion of the oncologist trumps the evidence, and fear becomes a weapon to force compliance.
There is another way, Leslie’s way; a middle path where both ends of the spectrum are honored, where good communication is maintained between conventional and integrative providers, and where patients can benefit from the best of both worlds. This healthy relationship requires putting our egos aside to acknowledge that cancer is such a complex disease that it demands a multidisciplinary approach. Does surgery alone cure most cancers? No. Does chemotherapy alone cure most cancers? No. Does diet or herbal medicine or mind-body medicine alone cure most cancers? No. No. No. We need each other. We can be more powerful together than we are apart.
And our patients deserve it.
For a Naturopathic Physician who is board certified in Naturopathic Oncology (FABNO), visit www.oncANP.org.
Jen Green is a Naturopathic Physician practicing at Emcura Integrative Clinic in Michigan www.DrJenGreen.com. She is Research Director of KNOW, the Knowledge in Naturopathic Oncology Website, which is a clinical tool that summarizes studies on natural cancer care: www.knowoncology.org.