Are You a Cancer Survivor?
Improvements in early detection and better therapies have contributed to a continued increase in the number of patients experiencing life after cancer. Many now live for decades following an initial cancer diagnosis, and the American Cancer Society projects that the number of cancer survivors will increase from 14.5 million in 2014 to 19 million by 2024 (Am Soc Clin Oncol. J Oncol Prac. 2015; 11(2): 79-113). That's certainly a positive trend, but the ensuing journey through survivorship is not an easy one. Eliminating tumors is one thing. Becoming healthy is quite another.
Primary care practitioners--especially those with a holistic orientation, like naturopathic and integrative physicians--can play a vital role in pushing the model of long-term cancer care beyond simply "absence of the disease" and toward optimizing health and well-being.
But, as the authors of a 2014 study found, there is a glaring education gap. Awareness of the late and long-term effects of chemotherapy is limited among primary care physicians (Nekhlyudov, L. et al. J Oncol Pract.2014; 10(2): e29-e36), and it is in these areas that a well trained integrative or naturopathic physician can help.
In 2006, Keith Block, MD posed the question, "Why Integrative Therapies?" in an editorial that appeared in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies. In it, Block offers numerous examples of how therapies often defined as "complementary" or "alternative" may contribute to getting cancer patients better, if they are used strategically as part of a comprehensive program to improve the survival, as well as survivorship (Block, K. Integ Cancer Ther. 2006; 5(1): 3-6). The ultimate goal is not just to improve a patient's life span, but also their health span.
For example, many people come to me after they have finished modern oncology treatments and ask for help in staying in remission, which is really a misnomer, in that the correct term is NED, or No Evident Disease, as can be seen on a scan. Many of these people have read about stem cells, and that after chemotherapy, cancer stem cells can remain and lead to more cancer. Modern oncology addresses this stem cell issue only with drugs; naturopathic and integrative physicians have effective high-quality and well-sourced herbs to do this.
It's the responsibility of the oncology team to minimize tumor burden to the greatest degree possible in each case. But it is the responsibility of primary care practitioners to help individuals carve out their own paths to health and well-being. However, sadly, most primary care modern medicine physicians, P.A.'s, and nurse practitioners--most of whom are good people and good practitioners in their field--know little about nutrition and how to help people achieve a good quality of life, other than advise them to exercise and take a multiple vitamin.
Often this can be due to the fact that the institutions for which they work limit the time they can spend with their patients. The other reason they often know little about how to help their patients achieve a higher quality of life is the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, which will provide free samples of drugs that provide symptom relief, yet often cause underlying problems in our biochemistry and physiology.
We have come far in applying what we now know about tumor biology and the factors that promote tumor growth. Now it's time to see if we can help people envision and actualize a healthy life beyond cancer. This is one task we do well at Partners in Integrative Cancer Therapies and Partners in Healthcare Naturally.