Can alternative medicine improve your odds?

Where the controversy starts is when cancer patients choose to use natural health products. High doses of antioxidants, such as beta carotene and vitamins A, C and E, are often suggested as a way to combat cancer because antioxidants have been shown in some animal studies to slow the development of cancer. But most cancer centres and individual oncologists recommend that cancer patients not use any supplements while undergoing active treatment because not enough research has been done on how these supplements might interact with conventional treatment. As Balneaves explains, antioxidants function by capturing free radicals in the body. But many chemotherapy and radiation treatments destroy cancer cells and create free radicals. It’s possible that one form of treatment could be negatively affecting the other.

Balneaves acknowledges the need for more research and says that the whole field of CAM – complementary and alternative medicine – needs more funding so that questions like this can be answered. What she sees as hopeful are the integrated health clinics, such as Inspire Health, that offer patients access to both medical doctors and complementary practitioners all under one roof. These services help patients who are under severe stress and feeling helpless to work through their options and understand what’s appropriate for their cancer care.

When Sirois was diagnosed, he didn’t go looking for a magical cure but he did want to know what, if anything, would help him extend his life and improve his quality of life. His research told him that treating cancer wasn’t just about finding the right chemo, but he didn’t have the practical knowledge about how to incorporate complementary therapies into his regimen. By signing up at Inspire Health, he learned what he needed to know.

Bridging the gap

The clinic, started by medical doctor Hal Gunn, has as part of its mission to bridge the gap between conventional and complementary health care and to research the effectiveness of complementary therapies. Lionel Wilson, a director at the centre, says that what differentiates the clinic is that the practitioners focus on empowering patients to learn about their options and make their own choices. More and more research shows that taking charge of their health after diagnosis significantly improves quality of life, reduces recurrence and increases survival, Wilson says. Supporting your health in simple ways with good nutrition and exercise can be as important as any treatment, Wilson says.

And new research is backing up that claim. Wilson points to a study on vitamin D that shows taking the supplement daily may reduce cancer by 60 per cent. And in June of this year, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published a study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, showing that exercise and healthful nutrition have a synergistic effect on reducing mortality from early stage breast cancer by 50 per cent. The study followed participants between five and 11 years and found that the mortality of women who ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and exercised the equivalent of walking briskly for 30 minutes six days a week was half that of other participants.