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Alternative Medicine for Cancer

By Pauline Sok Yin Hwang, Oncology Acupuncture Toronto

My colleagues and I aim to help provide the best of complementary and alternative medicine for cancer patients. We don’t like the term “alternative medicine,” though, because it sounds like you have to choose only this or that type of therapy, and exclude the rest. In reality, most cancer patients we know use conventional (biomedical), complementary and alternative therapies in whatever combination makes sense in their unique situation.

One question I get asked a lot is “Do you recommend using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as an alternative to conventional cancer treatment?”

In short, the answer is “No!” Some people may be surprised to hear this, assuming that TCM is a sort of anti-scientific, mystical practice. In reality, I’ve been trained by some of the leading TCM oncologists around the world, and they all practiced an integrative (not alternative) approach. “Integrative medicine” means using the “best of all worlds” — in this case using TCM and other complementary and alternative medicine alongside, but not instead of, the conventional cancer treatments that you choose to undergo. For example, this may mean using Chinese medicine and acupuncture to reduce the side effects of surgery, or the toxicities of chemotherapy (like low blood counts, nausea and vomiting, etc.). While this sounds like simply a “supportive” therapy for cancer, research shows treatment results can be improved by combining conventional care with complementary and alternative medicine for cancer. Numerous observational studies also show that people with cancer who take Traditional Chinese Medicine for longer also live longer. Alternative Medicine for Cancer

Why might that be?  First, patients who use TCM as a complementary medicine, may be able to tolerate their cancer treatments for longer, may be sensitized to the treatment, or may recover their energy and immune system more quickly between treatments. Second, many of the herbs and formulas used in Traditional Chinese Medicine have been researched for their cancer-fighting effects, and many have shown anti-cancer properties in laboratory or animal studies (though clinical trials are much more difficult for a variety of reasons). Third, Chinese medicine is an excellent option for rebuilding your strength, energy and immunity. A strong immune system, the ability to exercise and digest properly, and more can all help prevent the cancer from coming back or spreading. Harnessing the body’s own immune system’s in fighting cancer is coming into the forefront in conventional medicine, with the advancement of “immunotherapy”.

In some rare situations, TCM has been used alone, not alongside conventional cancer therapies. In most cases this is because some patients have a particular type or stage or cancer that does not respond well to conventional therapies, they have used all the conventional therapies available to them, they have been unable to continue conventional therapies because of the side effects, or because of their individual choice not to undergo conventional treatment. In some parts of the world, cost may also be a factor. While many of these individuals do very well on alternative medicine, there is not enough research information to prove the consistency of these results. For these reasons, the “integrative medicine” approach is important, and it’s the approach used in leading cancer centres around the world. For patients to use the “best of all worlds” in your approach to cancer, please ask as many questions as you wish about the costs, risks and benefits of each approach or each therapy.

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