Foolproof: On the Wisdom of Complementary Cancer Practices

If you’ve been through the cancer journey, you’ve most likely bumped into someone professing the benefits from whatever tools were a part of their recovery. The information and promises can be overwhelming, contradicting and confusing.

"Mind-body medicine should not be an 'alternative,' nor should complementary and integrative medicine be something doctors are not exposed to during their training." -- Dr. Bernie Siegel

The American Cancer Society refers to complementary and alternative medicine (also known as CAM) as “... terms used to describe many kinds of products, practices, and systems that are not part of mainstream medicine.” Later they state that “... you may not hear about these treatments from your doctor or cancer treatment team.”

It's clear that cancer is an equal opportunity destroyer, ravaging body and mind. The idea that the CAM model of holistic treatment, with some practices dating back thousands of years, often remains in the muddy waters of "unconventional” seems misguided. Minus the blessing of the medical profession, many of us find ourselves adrift in these waters when it comes to adding methods to treat the whole, not just the parts. When not being brushed aside by the obligatory “We can’t recommend that as a treatment,” those of us interested in thinking outside of the cancer box are often looked upon as foolhardy.

If you’ve been through the cancer journey, you’ve most likely bumped into someone professing the benefits from whatever tools were a part of their recovery. The information and promises can be overwhelming, contradicting and confusing. How does one sift through the plethora of cancer-fighting approaches to find the ones that will actually provide relief and not simply drain one’s pocketbook? When does the search for alternatives turn into a fool’s errand, and how do we prevent ourselves from getting tricked by treatments?

Full disclosure—I started the cancer journey with a “more is better” mentality. Once the boxes were checked for the traditional methods of surgery, chemo, radiation therapy and medication, I pulled out my mind/body menu and had at it like a starving man at a sushi bar. Here is the complete list of my holistic helpers:

Hatha yoga

Laughing yoga

Meditation/mindfulness

Vitamins

Herbal supplements like Essiac

Qi Gong

Yoga Nidra

Aromatherapy

Smudge stick ceremonies

Bibliotherapy

Bio-Energy healing

Reiki

Telepsychotherapy

Blogging

Prayer/Mantras

Therapeutic massage

I realize it was traditional medicine and the skills of the professionals involved that removed the tumor growing in my chest and destroyed any of its remnants. The addition of complementary practices was used, in most part, to meet the challenges of my side effects and restore a sense of wellness. Whereas chemo drained me of energy and threw my system into a tailspin, yoga, for example, helped to return a sense of balance. I still remember the feeling of accomplishment when, only a week after open heart surgery, I was able to stand in tree pose. If there was even the slimmest chance that any, or all, of the above practices would also decrease the chances of cancer’s return, that would be icing on the cake.

Another bonus of jumping on the nontraditional bandwagon is the liberation that comes from no longer being a passive recipient of treatment. Doing things for the mind, body and spirit feels much better than having things done to these vital systems. Additionally, many of these practices can be shared, eliminating the sense of solitary confinement many cancer patients feel sentenced to.

With so many opportunities for misinformation, false promises and profiting from someone else’s suffering, my wife and I developed litmus for whatever crossed our radar. Here is the checklist we came up with to eliminate the wheat from the chaff:

1. If it cost more than a 60 minute massage session, it was a “no go” as we found that in most cases, 60 minutes of massage was hard to beat for relaxation and stress reduction.

2. If it came with a promise to cure cancer, we filed it away with the same methods that promised to end aging, regrow hair or create limitless wealth.

3. If the person peddling it looked like the poster child for “don’t let this happen to your body,” we passed on claims to restore health.

4. If the only evidence for success were anecdotes from the same people who have been taken up in UFOs, we would politely refuse and then add them to the “block sender” list.

5. If the source was a book that had the words “secret,” “hidden” or “forbidden” in its title, it was given a pass in favor of a “Far Side” comic book.

Perhaps the best news about complementary methods is that one does not have to understand, or even believe in, the mechanisms at work to benefit from them. For many, that puts these practices squarely in the category of pseudo science or snake oil. If pushed on the issue, I will admit I’ve no scientific proof that anything on the above list aided in my passage from cancer patient to cancer survivor. And while I know that some would argue that they played no role at all, and that to think otherwise is simply fooling myself, my response is, “It feels awesome to be a cancer surviving fool!”