Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Alternative Medicine

I've had quite a number of well-meaning people suggest “alternative” methods for treating my cancer. Anything from herbal, homeopathic, and naturopathic remedies to non-FDA-approved medicines from other countries that come in a conveniently nondescript envelope, not to mention things like infomercials or flashy web sites or accu-puncture and energy healing have been sent to me. As much as I wish that some of these less painful and invasive methods were effectual, I have never met or heard of any success stories that would sway me to change my treatment regimen. I’m no big fan of pain and discomfort, but I know people survive the treatment and within reason, return to their lives as they knew it before, if not completely.

Rather than going on a rant, I feel it critically important to anyone considering treating their cancer with anything less than an established, proven standard of care look at the results because quite literally, your life is at stake. For a long time, cancer has been a somewhat academic, almost remote topic thing to me, but over the past couple of weeks, less so as people I know have lost their battle and another group receiving their diagnosis. So, I’ll co-opt a rant by a friend of mine who has walked a parallel treatment path as mine. I’m editing it a bit more to my experience and writing style, but I agree with his content. I’m also adding my dos centavos’ worth.
First, a couple of disclaimers:

1)      I loathe pharmaceutical commercials.  OK, full disclosures, I hate 99% of commercials, but especially those put on by big pharma. My take is that I shouldn’t be lobbying my doctor for what I think the best medication is for me. I will make sure I am fully informed on what it is that’s going into my body and understand the side effects beforehand. I am ultimately in charge of my treatment, but we work together, recognizing the doc is the guy with the training, not me.  Ironically, I only watch the commercials on the Super Bowl, but bypass the game. Go figure! Off topic…

2)      I feel strongly that no one should lose their standard of living because they get sick, especially through no fault of their own. Even for people who have health insurance, cancer has the potential to financially cripple a family for years if not forever. I hate the thought of someone losing their home because of medical bills, politics be damned.

3)      I have been treated through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. My standard of care through the VA has been nothing short of world class. My treatment has been through entirely “Western” or modern methods and protocols.

4)      I do utilize some alternatives or supplements, primarily for comfort (e.g. essential oils, probiotics, over-the-counter multi-vitamins, etc.) as my medical team has specifically allowed so as not to interfere with their regimen. I am not anti-alternative as there is a time and place for these methods.

5)      I do my best to eat healthy and under normal circumstances, I exercise several times a week. I rarely use sweeteners or salt and currently, my exercise regimen is under the supervision of my medical team. When I’m not in treatment, I’m in the gym five times a week and anyone who knows me at all frequently sees me on two wheels, on the black diamond slopes, or in a pair of hiking boots in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. I’m an active guy and I do credit my active lifestyle for how quickly my body has responded to treatment.
I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia on February 21 following a series of blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy which showed 50% blast cells in my marrow. I was told that without treatment, I had about 90 days to live. That’s a sobering pronouncement no matter how you slice it. The hematologist/oncologist (hem/onc) insisted on admitting me right away as the diagnosis indicated a bona fide medical emergency. That night, I began a battery of tests that confirmed the cytometry from the biopsy and aggressive chemotherapy began a few days later.

Despite how you or I feel about big pharma, the manufacturers of the toxic chemical goodness quite literally saved my life. Yes, the prices of these powerful drugs is out of the ball park, but there’s no getting around the reason companies are in business: to make money. Health care is, by nature, humanitarian and it often ventures into the philanthropic, but at the end of the day, pharmaceutical companies have to make money to keep pumping out the drugs that keep us smiling...or alive. The kind of safety, sterile conditions, and extensive research required to develop, test, and implement the kinds of specialized drugs suitable for use in the health care market, let alone those that target specific cancers is exhaustive. There are processes in place to ensure that when the nurse hooks that IV to my arm, it’s not going to go in and kill me outright. And because these chemicals are so strong, medications to offset side effects make the treatment more bearable. All of this is because of big pharma and as much as I don’t like their advertising, I’m profoundly grateful for the end product. I’m alive to tell the tale and while I did hurl my fair share into those little green tubs, you can be sure nurse's littler helper, Zofran, made it far less often!
Admittedly, there are shortcomings in the system and where money is exchanged, corruption, collusion, and other problems crop up. But because hospitals and pharmaceutical companies make their report results public, they are closely scrutinized and we learn and make the right improvements.
The results of these improvements?
People are winning the battle against leukemia and other blood cancers whereas just a few years back, I might have been given an optimal couple of years added to my life with some rudimentary chemo. Diagnosis to death figures in the 1960s was even more dire with aggressive leukemia killing in as little as six weeks! Even as few as five or six years ago, bone marrow transplants were unsuccessful in 30% of recipients.  Advancements in treatment protocols, which includes improved antifungals, antibiotics, and antiviral medications has brought treatment related mortality rates to as little as 5%!

Think about that for a minute.
With success rates like that, attacking big pharma is not the answer. Very clearly, we’re winning the war on blood cancers and we’re now finding that bone marrow transplants are being used in treating HIV/AIDS with some promising results. No doubt other strains of cancer are benefitting from advancements in pharmaceutical research and development, but from my standpoint, I see people living life after cancer…and that, dear ones, is encouraging and exciting.

And that's especially so to me. I get a second lease on life.

OK, we know that because of FDA-requirements, the protocols and drugs used in treating cancer are making a difference. What can we say about alternative or natural medicine? The argument goes that much of what is in the drugs we take is essentially synthesized plants, right? My friend Paul (incidentally my daughter’s father in-law) researched a number of alternative methods and natural therapies recommended to him, again by well-meaning people and his findings in a nutshell?
He was unable to find anything verifiable. My research has turned up a lot of information, but no verifiable results either. More often than not, the so-called research is a pitch to sell vitamins that could be purchased over the counter or some supplement offering a panacea for those who are looking for some sort of second opinion. Often, the enzymes being hocked are no more efficacious than existing over the counter medications, yet charging substantially more. Some sites will empirically insist that there are proven natural methods, but not provide that evidence. Others like Gerson Therapy in San Diego have testimonials, but fall short in scientific method.
Everyone else? Nice claims. Wishful thinking. No evidence.
People make excuses. "No one will study these herbs because they can't make money on them." That is just not true. It's hard to find a natural food claim that hasn't been studied. From my own situation, I am strongly convinced that good health is critically important in the role of healing not to mention prevention. We could greatly reduce cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many other diseases by eating healthier and exercising regularly and it’s patently ridiculous to claim that doctors don't know and don't promote healthy eating and exercise. Without exception, every visit I’ve had to my doctor before my diagnosis and since, the role of nutrition and exercise have been emphasized.
Miracle health, from drinking açai juice, doing Pilates, or taking colloidal silver, is a fantasy. Colloidal silver, by the way, can permanently turn your skin gray if you drink too much of it. Oh, yeah, the medical establishment has studied colloidal silver, too.
People with no evidence to back up their claims, and who have no intention of keeping track of the success of their claims, fire salvos at a medical establishment are no better than the snake oil salesmen of the 19th century. Sure, there are still problems in our health care industry, but it is responsible for almost doubling our life spans over the past century.
That said, the responsibility for that quality of life is still up to us. Eat right, exercise, take care of your body, certainly. Use natural medicine, herbs, and diet, but don’t throw your doctor out of the equation. There are limits to natural methods…and cancer is not one to monkey around with.

Music for today from Jordin Sparks – ‘This is My Now”
There was a time I packed my dreams away
Living in a shell, hiding from mysellf

There was a time when I was so afraid
I thought I'd reached the end, baby that was then
But I am made of more than my yesterdays

This is my now and I am breathing in the moment
As I look around I can't believe the love I see
My fear's behind me, gone are the shadows and doubt
That was then, this is my now

I had to decide, was I gonna to play it safe?
Or look somewhere deep inside, try to turn the tide
And find the strength to take that step of faith

This is my now and I am breathing in the moment
As I look around I can't believe the love I see
My fear's behind me, gone are the shadows and doubt
That was then, this is my now

But I have a courage like never before, yeah
I've settled for less, but I'm ready for more
Ready for more!

This is my now and I am breathing in the moment
As I look around I can't believe the love I see
My fear's behind me, gone are the shadows and doubt
That was then, this is my now!

I'm living in the moment
As I look around I can't believe the love I see
My fear's behind me, gone are the shadows and doubt
That was then, this is my now, this is my now

Thanks to Paul Pavao – his original posting can be found here. I refer to his site on occasion as he is about a year past where I am in post-transplant AML treatment and my blog tends to be more of a story-telling where he incorporates more clinical information that I would. I’ve endeavored to keep the content because I agree with it, but both my focus and writing style are a bit different.