Undergoing conventional cancer therapy is like using a cannon to kill a mosquito: collateral damage to healthy cells is inevitable. Modalities under Complementary and Alternative Medicine, such as traditional Chinese medicine, can mitigate such effects
A cancer diagnosis can be devastating — it can seem like the end of the world has arrived!
The bad news is that the incidence of cancer is rising around the world. In fact, it is the second leading cause of death in the United States of America (USA)1. It spares neither movie stars (Patrick Swayze succumbed to pancreatic cancer2) nor sports heroes (Martina Navratilova survived breast cancer3).
The good news is that improvements in screening, detection, treatment, and care have led to an increase in the number of cancer survivors. It is estimated that there are more than 15.5 million survivors in the USA4, and that number is expected to grow.
Conventional medicine defines cancer as a growth of abnormal cells caused by a sequence of DNA mutations. When it comes to treatment, conventional or allopathic medicine is often the first option. Besides surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, these days there are more personalised treatments, such as precision medicine, gene therapy, and immunotherapy.
You often hear stories of cancer patients vomiting their meals and losing their crowning glory; some with reduced immunity become highly susceptible to infections. The main reason is because conventional therapies kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Unsurprisingly, more and more cancer patients are exploring less aggressive ways of dealing with the disease.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) presents a spectrum of methods to do just that. These methods can enhance conventional cancer treatments, and alleviate the side-effects of or act as an alternative for patients unresponsive to such treatments. They also appeal to people who prefer a more holistic, drug-free approach to address cancer.
A study of a random sample of breast cancer survivors in Ontario, Canada, found that 66.7% had used some form of CAM — including traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), reiki, shiatsu, herbal remedies, and homeopathy — to deal with nausea, fatigue, hair loss, pain, and other symptoms5.
AN INTRODUCTION TO TCM
One CAM therapy that has been gaining acceptance among mainstream medical practitioners is TCM. Methods such as acupuncture and tui na are used not only in mainstream hospitals in Singapore, a hub of medical excellence in Southeast Asia, but also in elite American institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, University of California San Francisco, and Duke University Medical Centre6.
Developed in China about 5,000 years ago, TCM looks at the interactions between mind, body, and environment. TCM physicians believe that mind and body are intimately connected, so mental issues can be related to a disease of the organs and vice versa. They also believe that humans are connected to nature and affected by its forces.
The human body is seen as a whole, in which the organs, tissues and other parts have distinct functions but are all interdependent. In this view, health and disease relate to balance and imbalance of the functions. TCM aims to cure problems by restoring the balance of energies using a combination of practices7 [see sidebar].
The following are components that form the underlying basis of TCM8: Yin-Yang Theory: There are two opposing but complementary forces shape the world and all life in it. The balance between yin and yang maintains harmony in your body, mind, and the universe. Qi: Pronounced “chee,” this is the vital energy that flows through your body along pathways known as meridians and is affected by the balance between yin and yang. If there is a blockage or imbalance in the energy flow, you become ill. TCM aims to restore the balance and smooth flow of qi. Five Elements: Fire, earth, wood, metal, water symbolically represent all phenomena, including the stages of human life, and is thus linked to the functioning of the body and how it changes during a disease.
Now that you’ve been introduced to TCM, check out Pt 2 to understand the three ways that this ancient practice can benefit cancer patients specifically.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/data/types.htm
4. American Cancer Society Report www.cancer.org/cancer/news/report-number-of-cancer-survivors-continues-to-grow
There is a reason why more and more conventional oncologists are working with traditional Chinese medicine as an adjunct therapy for their patien