Integrative Medicine is the judicious combining of conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, with lifestyle and complementary therapies, to broaden patient choice, increase patient engagement, improve quality of life and extend survival.
It’s a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario that has its roots in the patient perspective. Historically, it’s been an ‘either/or’ situation between conventional medicine and other approaches, which has often placed patients in an extremely difficult position at one of the most stressful points in their lives. Any open-minded patient looking for the best possible outcome is far less interested in the label attached to an approach, than in whether or not it could help them. This is the perspective that underpins Integrative Medicine.
There are enormous strengths to both conventional and lifestyle/complementary approaches. Conventional medicine is largely preoccupied with removing or killing cancer cells and has some highly effective means of doing this. This approach can often be life-saving, such as when dealing with a rapidly growing cancer or one that threatens a vital organ; and early surgery can commonly be sufficient to deliver a complete remission.
Lifestyle practitioners, however, are far more preoccupied with the process of cancer – what circumstances prompted it to start, what is driving it – and overarchingly they are concerned with optimising the health and immunity of the patient. Their approach can result in a slowing or reversing of the process, which can deliver unexpectedly good outcomes in even late stage cancers. With the proportion of cancers attributed to lifestyle ranging from 60% to well over 90%, depending on who you ask, there is no credible rationale for overlooking lifestyle approaches.
The magic really happens when the full gamut of both approaches is available. Clearly conventional medicine has a certain level of success independently – although in the case of many of the most prevalent cancers, the statistics are still shockingly poor, notably in the UK where performance is well below average for its investment. And it is increasingly recognised that there is a group of patients who achieve good results without conventional medicine at all, or despite failed conventional treatment.
If we take conventional treatment as the ‘baseline’, what can lifestyle and complementary medicine add?
Using specific nutritional interventions, it is possible to prepare a patient for treatment so as to minimise subsequent damage to organs from chemotherapy, trauma from surgery, or collateral damage from radiation. And the use of immune modulating compounds can provide a buffer against the immuno-suppressive effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
There are many strategies for minimising the specific side-effects and ongoing collateral damage caused by conventional treatments, as well as for increasing overall resilience, enabling patients to go through treatment feeling better, and spending less time in hospital suffering from side effects and infections that result from lowered immunity.
The range of techniques for improving the effectiveness of conventional treatments is expanding rapidly. Alongside established techniques such as the use of heat (hyperthermia) or oxygen (hyperbaric oxygen therapy), evidence for the remarkable synergy of some natural compounds with conventional approaches is demonstrating hugely significant gains in survival.
This is probably the period when integration can deliver the most. Conventional medicine has few strategies beyond some hormone suppressing drugs or, more recently, targeted drugs such as herceptin, to keep patients from relapsing. The lifestyle practitioner’s focus on discovering and remedying the causes addresses the enormous risk that, without such understanding and intervention, a patient is wide open to relapsing shortly after a ‘successful’ treatment for exactly the same reasons they were first diagnosed – which is tragically all too common. And the parallel preoccupation with the optimisation of the body’s innate defences is key to creating the conditions for a stable remission.
Imagine the power of integrating the technical sophistication of conventional medicine with the deep understanding of the foundations of health and wellbeing that lifestyle and complementary medicine has established. Our NHS can deliver superlative results in highly sophisticated surgical procedures, yet flounders when it comes to treating patients with care and compassion, responding to them as people rather than a collection of body parts or as a disease type, or delivering patient choice and patient-centred care – which successive governments have attempted, but largely failed, to introduce for more than four decades.
While lifestyle and complementary medicine make no pretence to be able to respond adequately to a heart attack, the entire sector is immersed in an ethos that is caring, wholistic and patient-centred – it’s in a complementary therapist’s DNA. Integrating the complementary and lifestyle sector into our cancer care will address the desperately needed reforms to the outdated didactic and patriarchal system that stubbornly persists.
The evidence for lifestyle and complementry approaches has built exponentially in recent years. It’s deeply uncaring and disrespectful towards those with cancer to dismiss all such interventions as ‘having no evidence’ without even troubling to look. The only basis on which this could be said to be true in any way, is when it comes to randomised, placebo-controlled trials (RCTs). It’s now aundantly clear that the ‘gold standard’ of evidence, the RCT, is totally unsuited to natural medicines, let alone complex protocols involving multiple simultaneous interventions, and far too expensive to apply to a low-profit product such as a supplement. The evidence is there in spades for many lifestyle interventions – albeit not RCTs – but quite sufficient on which to base the adoption of strategies that are almost universally cheap, safe and health-promoting.
The understanding of, and interest in, the building blocks of good health that preoccupies lifestyle practitioners is largely absent from our healthcare system, leading to criticisms that it is actually a disease management system. The most important cancer strategy needed at this point – where one in two of us will get cancer – is prevention. And the strategies for prevention are deeply intertwined with those for people with a cancer diagnosis. Precisely the same understandings of the process of cancer inform strategies for prevention.
There are a huge range of safe, inexpensive resources available to help people with cancer achieve better outcomes and quality of life, right now. To fail to move quickly towards integration is to fail people with cancer.
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