Friday, August 19, 2011

Naturopathic Medicine and Cancer Treatment

On a recent flight to the annual convention of the AANP, a fellow passenger asked me what I did for a living. Never one to balk at an opportunity to talk about naturopathic medicine, I enthusiastically gave her my ‘elevator speech’, highlighting all of the important points of my work. After a little more discussion, I mentioned that I occasionally work with patients in various stages of dealing with cancer. She had a family member battling breast cancer, so we spoke a bit more on the topic.

This encounter really got me thinking, so today’s entry is going to focus on what naturopathic doctors do for patients with cancer. All cancers are different, and there’s hardly enough room to discuss how I might work with every single kind of cancer, so this entry is going to be a bit broader, talking about cancer thematically rather than specifically.

Additionally, there’s an important point to make when discussing cancer – even in states where naturopathic doctors enjoy a broad scope of practice, we are often specifically forbidden to treat the cancer itself, that privilege being reserved for oncologists alone. So, then, if we can’t treat the cancer, how do naturopathic doctors benefit cancer patients?

1. Decreasing side effects. Many treatments for cancer come with heavy burdens of side effects, side effects which often take a serious toll on not only the patient, but the patient’s family and community as well. Unfortunately, these are frequently seen as just being part of the inevitable process of cancer treatment. While no naturopath can guarantee a painless course through chemotherapy or radiation, a licensed naturopathic physician with experience can help a patient have an easier time going through their conventional treatment, decreasing all manner of side effects brought on by chemo or radiation. In many cases, this supportive treatment can help a patient receive better results from their conventional treatment by decreasing side effects which might otherwise cause them to stop their chemo or radiation early. In a few ways, then, naturopathic treatment to decrease side effects benefits patients – it reduces suffering on the part of the patient, improves quality of life, and helps support conventional treatment, thus improving outcomes.

2. Prevention. Many patients seek naturopathic doctors when they are in remission and are seeking to prevent a recurrence of cancer. While again, there are no guarantees in preventing a recurrence of cancer, modern medicine has a strong understanding of what causes cancer to occur in the first place and what helps to prevent it – many of these factors hold true for preventing recurrence as well. A trained naturopathic doctor knows and understands these factors (along with factors unique for preventing recurrence), and can translate them into real-life recommendations for patients.

3. Humanizing the patient. Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment is one of the greatest challenges a person can undergo in life, and one which leaves many with stressed relationships, weakened bodies, and downtrodden spirits. Many feel less than human during and after the process, and with little sense of how to put their lives back together, let alone rebuild their strength. Here, above all else, our understanding of the importance of the doctor-patient relationship puts naturopathic physicians in a place to help patents not only make it through cancer treatment, but make it through feeling whole and healthy. We help humanize cancer patients by taking the time to listen and by providing them with empathy and care during an extremely difficult process. Additionally, for patients who have made it to remission, naturopathic doctors work hard to help them rebuild and become whole once again.

All patients are different and all doctors are different, so while treatments may vary for individual patients, all naturopathic doctors approach the treatment of cancer patients with these goals in mind. Though we don’t treat the cancer per se, naturopathic doctors are fond of saying, ‘We don’t treat disease, we treat people with diseases.’ Nowhere is this more true than with cancer – in a field wrought with fear, difficult treatments and uncertain futures, naturopathic doctors work to strengthen patients, helping them to cope better with side effects, prevent recurrences, and above all maintain their dignity and sense of self in the face of challenges.