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Alternative therapies: What role have they played in my recovery?

One constant question I get asked is what role diet, nutrition, and supplements have played in my recovery.  A year after diving headfirst into the nutrition and supplement world, I judge the results as decidedly "mixed."  I am getting better – that is evident in both scans and how I feel.  My bloodwork is coming back at healthy levels, a great sign that my body is healing. So, why only mixed success?

When I started PD-1 last April, we sort of threw everything at the wall to see what would stick, and have been slowly adjusting my diet, nutrition, and supplements since those first scan results. It would have been nice to try one thing, then another, etc. to see what worked — but when tumors are pressing against organs, you don't have time for controlled experiments.  So the last year has really been a clinical trial of health, not just a particular pharmaceutical.

With the CAM conference experience and Melyssa's guest post, I got a more in-depth look into the world of alternative treatment – one I have dipped my foot into, but never fully accepted as a standalone therapy. I did integrate a significant amount of alternative concepts into my regimen, however, and other cancer patients are now asking what I did that gave such great results.  Unfortunately, it's not clear-cut as to what works, what doesn't, and most important, what is best for you.

There are two sides to the alternative medicine discussion, and both have their flaws. Most physicians discount anything more than basic nutrition and vitamin supplementation, due to lack of training or knowledge in the field. Nearly everything I have explored as an adjunct therapy has been dismissed by my primary oncologists, whose upbringing in medicinal healing rendered other options inferior. (My admitting ER doctor is one of the few who has pushed supplementation and nutrition as part of healing; he even has a book coming out discussing how to regain and maintain health naturally). As to why the mainstream medical community dismisses many proven benefits of supplements and complementary treatments — well, that's just shake-your-head mystifying.

On the flip side, holistic practitioners often take something that works (or helps) and exaggerate claims about its effectiveness, to the detriment of those seeking a full treatment protocol.  Having a "cure" that produces results for a number of people does NOT make it a viable cancer option for the entire population.  Yet, the alternative medical world is filled with testimonials offering stories of amazing recoveries that don't often portray the entire picture.

My own nutritionist beat her cancer with Chinese herbs and faithfully believes in their power to heal – hell, I understand why, they saved her life.  She tells me of the many, many people who have successfully treated their cancer (and other ailments) with these herbs. The one thing she can't seem to answer is the question, "Out of how many?" If one hundred people were cured, is that out of 100, 1,000, or 10,000? That's the issue I faced in researching and deciding complementary avenues - rooting through the claims made by those who cherry-pick success stories without accounting for failures.

It's not really my nutritionist's fault – alternative treatments will almost NEVER be able to undergo the scrutiny of true randomized trials. Mainstream medicine would most likely balk at the ethicality of patients arbitrarily assigned to a control group of alternative treatments. Since testing the different combinations of drugs and other treatment options would be impractical, if not impossible, on a large-scale model, the value of supplemental treatments are discounted or outright dismissed when they may have significant value.  So the conundrum exists indefinitely, and cancer patients are the real losers.

Sifting through complementary treatment is actually much more difficult than figuring out the best conventional path to choose. Since nearly all complementary treatments cannot claim they treat or cure cancer, there is only testimonials and whatever information the source presents you, often with little or no scientific citation. To cause more confusion, claims of cures are usually tough to verify, not measured against patients who were NOT cured, and give little consideration of external factors. There is a difference between correlation and causation, a blurry line many complementary preachers conveniently overlook.

Which brings me to the example of a guy named Steve Jobs. The man behind the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, etc… was also a Buddhist, vegetarian, and doubter of Western medicine's ability to treat his form of pancreatic cancer. Jobs delayed traditional treatments for his cancer — a rare but mild type that is almost always survivable if treated in time — and instead opted for an alternative therapy until the disease spread (the article also links to a detailed Quara post done by an oncologist that breaks down the medicine behind Jobs' illness; it requires registering on the site, but is a great read). Jobs' death at age 56 and his unorthodox treatment decisions serve as a cautionary tale for believing too much that "what worked for someone else will work for me, too."

The middle ground is obvious. Traditional medicine and its billions of dollars in research and revenue will never go away — but much like clinical trial test drug combinations (which Dr. Sarnaiks mention at the end of a very early blog post), treatment protocols should explore inclusion of nutrition, lifestyle adjustments, supplements, and any adjunct therapies that have the likelihood of providing a synergistic benefit.

Holistic medicine needs to work with drug companies, not in competition with them, to discover which compounds, combinations, and complementary therapies give patients an edge up in their treatment.  With immunotherapy sitting on the cusp of fundamentally changing the way we treat cancer, the logical next steps should include "How do I work WITH the drug to give it the best possible chance of working its magic in my body?" The quicker mainstream medicine can adopt this concept, the faster and better complementary medicine will integrate – and the more healing will occur.

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