Can alternative medicine improve your odds?

Exercise became a mainstay of Sirois’s fight against cancer. Always a serious runner (it was a headache that wouldn’t go away after a 10-kilometre run that was his first clue of his tumour), he got back in his running shoes as soon as he could after surgery. He recently ran his first 10 kilometres since his surgery with the goal of beating his best time, which he did – by three minutes.

As Sirois has negotiated his way through the last year, he has used the clinic as a resource. First, he attended an informal information session where he met a practitioner, a doctor and other people with cancer. Then he joined a support group, something he was loathe to do at first. He was afraid it would be too negative at a time when he wanted to focus on the positive.

But he soon discovered that “it was a high-value exercise” putting it in the business speak he’s used to. Now even after his active treatment has finished, he has continued in the group. He’s also talked with practitioners and doctors about other aspects of his efforts to combat the disease. He’s learned the best way to do visualization: don’t imagine little munchkin soldiers eating the tumour – any focus on the tumour gives energy to the disease, he was told. Instead, visualize a state of healthfulness and a positive future event. He visualized his daughter’s graduation and, when it occurred early in June 2007, it was “very moving” to be sitting in the audience, he says.

Sirois also takes supplements recommended for brain health and has modified his diet by reducing his sugar and fat consumption. During his active treatment, he also received advice about managing side effects and even decided at one point not to take a steroid medication recommended by his oncologist because he felt the side effects outweighed the benefits. “Having cancer is all about managing side effects,” he says.

Most cancer patients don’t have access to an integrated cancer clinic, but many create a similar situation for themselves by working with a naturopathic doctor along with their oncologist and other mainstream health-care providers. Dr. Paul Saunders, a naturopathic doctor in Dundas, Ont., and professor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine who specializes in cancer treatment, advises that patients seek a complementary care provider with good training, then work with that professional to create a plan for managing side effects, reducing symptoms, boosting the immune system and improving quality of life. Don’t take your treatment plan off the Internet or from someone in a health-food store, he says bluntly.

Some oncologists are open to combining complementary and mainstream approaches in cancer care, but most are not. For example, on the issue of whether to take antioxidants, mainstream medicine says no, whereas Saunders says there are situations where they can be beneficial. So patients need to listen to the various advice they’re given and make their own choices.

Dave Sirois certainly feels and sounds healthy. And for that he’s grateful to the doctors who cut away and blasted his brain tumour – and to the doctors who helped him harness his own inner strength to work toward good health.