Cancer Care 101: Treating the Illness, Treating the Personsam
by Dr. Martin L. Rossman
In cancer care there are two complementary goals of treatment. One, the usual medical goal, is to kill cancer cells and tumors, or reduce their numbers and their ability to grow, reproduce, and spread (metastasize). The other, perhaps best called the healing goal, is to support the well-being and resistance of the patient. Here I use resistance to stand for all the mechanisms, known and unknown, that protect us from the development and dissemination of cancer.
Conventional medical care for cancer has for many years concentrated on destroying tumors without paying much attention to supporting the patient as a whole person, with innate healing capacities. Until recently, most people put themselves in the hands of an oncologist (cancer specialist) and did what they were told. While you almost certainly need a good oncologist to prescribe and monitor your medical treatment, there is often much more to surviving cancer. Charles Smith, M.D., is a prominent urologist who specialized for years in treating men with prostate cancer, and then developed aggressive prostate cancer himself. After going through treatment, he wrote:
“Cancer is not just a lump in your body that can be cut out or killed by radiation or drugs. It alters every aspect of your life. Time and time again patients would tell me this. Some would even say that, in the end, it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Statements like this make no sense to a physician who is solely focused on the details of surgery, radiation therapy, or ablation. I have come to the conclusion that you, as a patient, cannot simply allow the management of your cancer and your life to be limited by the narrow views of the physicians you encounter.”
Dr. Smith points to a major problem with the conventional approach to cancer. While it aggressively attempts to eliminate cancer cells, it does little or nothing to promote the health, vitality, and well-being of the person who is fighting that cancer. A poorly nourished, poorly supported person with cancer, overwhelmed by emotions, is likely to have a much more difficult time than one who is better nourished, better supported, and better balanced emotionally.
Years ago I moved into a new house with my wife and infant daughter. Next to the back windows around the baby’s room there were a number of ailing bushes. Not being much of a gardener, I called one in. A leather-skinned fellow looking twice his actual age said that the bushes had four different infestations and needed to be sprayed with four different chemical pesticides. When I asked him if they were toxic, he lit up a cigarette and looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Nah,” he said, drawing deeply on his smoke, “I’ve been using them for years and they haven’t bothered me none.”
Having a small child, I got a second opinion from an organic gardener, a pleasant young man who carefully examined the plants and their environment. He agreed completely with the diagnoses made by the first gardener, but his approach to treating them was quite different. He said, “These plants are pretty sick, but they haven’t been well cared for in some time. Let’s give them what they need and see what they can do on their own.” He then showed me how to prune the deadwood, aerate the soil, fertilize the plants, and get them on a regular watering schedule. In four months the bushes had regained their health and thrown off the infections themselves. The next year, they even produced beautiful blossoms.
The difference between the approaches of these two gardeners is a perfect analogy for a strictly medical versus an integrated approach to cancer care. The plants may still have needed pesticides if they weren’t able to recover themselves, but they would probably have needed smaller doses and fewer than the first gardener recommended. In the same way, you may well benefit from medical and surgical treatment, but you are likely to do much better with all therapies if your basic needs are attended to as well.
Supporting your innate healing abilities can only help you make the best use of any treatment you choose, and, alternatively, neglecting them is likely to make it more difficult for any treatment to work. As the second gardener said to me, “You know, if these plants don’t get regular water and proper nutrients, all the pesticides in the world won’t be able to cure them.
Supporting your health and eliminating your disease are two complementary approaches to healing that support and strengthen each other. In my experience, neither one works as well as both together.
You can use this analogy to see if there are any changes in your life that would support your own healing more effectively. Is there “dead-wood” in your life — areas where you put energy that does not produce something of value to your well-being? Can you eliminate any of it? Are there pests and parasites that can be picked off? Are you giving yourself good nutrition and enough water on a regular basis? Is there an appropriate balance of light (joy) and shade (rest) for you? What could you do to make that balance more enjoyable for yourself?
Supporting your health makes it easier to tolerate treatments that can sometimes be difficult, and that in turn increases the likelihood that the treatments will work as desired. Methods of supporting your health and enhancing resistance to cancer generally fall into three categories: (1) nutritional support, ranging from improvement of diet to sophisticated individualized programs of nutritional supplementation with vitamins, minerals, herbs, essential fatty acids, and natural biological response modifiers; (2) mind-body approaches, ranging from support groups to counseling, to meditation, stress reduction, and guided imagery practices, and body-mind practices such as yoga, chi gung, tai chi, Jin Shin Jyutsu; and (3) systematic approaches with time-honored healing systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine.
While the methods differ, their goal is the same — supporting and stimulating the vitality and function of the innate healing systems of the body, mind, and spirit. This idea is an ancient one, which perhaps we lost sight of in our enthusiasm for what modem medical treatment might be able to do. In traditional Chinese medicine this is known as fu zheng therapy. Fu zbeng translates as “supporting the righteous.” In China, fu zheng is not the sole therapy for cancer, but it is a useful complement to both traditional and modem means to eliminate tumors and cancer cells. Many studies have shown that good nutrition, herbs, acupuncture, and mind-body approaches are all effective in reducing adverse effects from conventional treatments, and very likely in improving treatment results.
Guided imagery has become quickly and widely accepted as a useful adjunct in the treatment of people with cancer due largely to its ease of use, low cost, and rapid psychological benefits. It has been shown to increase both the numbers and aggressiveness of natural killer cells when practiced over time, has been shown to reduce complications from surgery, relieve pain, and reduce adverse effects of chemotherapy. Imagery is a psychological and medical intervention likely to increase your odds of recovery.
Copyright Â© 2003 Martin L. Rossman, M.D.
Excerpted from Fighting Cancer from Within: How to Use the Power of Your Mind For Healing By Martin L. Rossman, M.D. (Published by Owl Books; $15.00US/$21.95CAN; 0-8050-6916-X).
Martin L. Rossman, M.D., is the cofounder and president of the Academy for Guided Imagery and is on the faculty of the medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. The author of Guided Imagery for Self-Healing and Fighting Cancer from Within: How to Use the Power of Your Mind For Healing, he lives in Mill Valley, California. For more information, please visit: www.fightcancerwithin.com