Can alternative medicine improve your odds?

Complementary and alternative treatment options are becoming part of the regime for cancer treatment in many clinics in North America. The important news is that patients are learning how to empower themselves and make choices about their health care.

Dave Sirois*, father of four and grandfather of two, exudes the warmth and energy of someone with it all together. In the best shape of his life, he runs 10 kilometres every second day. He talks with gratitude and openness about having love in his life from his wife and kids, and the friendship of his long-time hockey buddies. And he’s pleased that his Vancouver business consulting firm is at the moment a “raging success.”

But Sirois fought hard to overcome a terrifying hurdle to reach his state of equanimity. In June of 2006, he was diagnosed with mixed glioma, a particularly aggressive brain tumour with a survival expectancy of 17 months.

Sirois had a typical response to his cancer diagnosis – he describes his state as “confused, scared and devastated.” He was immediately slated for brain surgery so he had little time to get his bearings. But once the surgery was behind him, he did what most people diagnosed with cancer do – he looked for ways to improve his odds. And in his case, the odds were long. His form of cancer has a one per cent survival rate after five years.

“My partner and I started to study that one per cent,” he says. And what they discovered was there was enough evidence for what Sirois calls “the kooky stuff” that it was worth incorporating into his treatment.

Along with mainstream treatment – surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – Sirois investigated complementary and alternative treatment options, and his research brought him to Inspire Health, Canada’s only government-funded integrated cancer clinic. And while the slash-and-burn approach of mainstream medicine destroyed the visible tumour mass – Sirois’s last MRI was clear with no sign of regrowth – it was the support and guidance of the medical doctors and complementary health practitioners at Inspire Health that gave him the strength and focus to not just survive this last year but thrive.

“I’m not the type of guy to do visualization or meditation, take supplements or focus on my diet.” But now he does all of those things – “I’m much more open-minded,” he says. “It’s a cliché to say this, but this diagnosis has made my life better.”

A Growing Trend

About one-third of Canadians include some kind of complementary or alternative health therapy in their lives, says Lynda Balneaves, an assistant professor at University of British Columbia’s school of nursing and a Canadian Cancer Society research scientist. And that number jumps as high as 80 per cent after a diagnosis of cancer. Balneaves says that many therapies, such as art therapy, visualization, meditation and yoga, have made their way into conventional treatment. In some centres, for example, nurses help patients maximize their chemotherapy treatments by teaching them visualization techniques. And recent research has shown evidence that mindfulness-based meditation has a positive effect on treatment outcomes.