The Wisdom of Complementary or Alternative Medicine

Mind-body medicine should not be an ‘alternative,’ nor should complementary and integrative medicine be something doctors are not exposed to during their training.” —Dr. Bernie Siegel

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Those being treated for a life-altering illness by modern, or “conventional,” medicine often find the approach dehumanizing. As passive recipients of care, they are identified by their diseases and the focus is on the amelioration of symptoms.

As a result, many will turn to “alternative” medicine to explore a more holistic approach that includes mind/body techniques. Unfortunately, these alternative methods of treatment are sometimes frowned upon by Western medicine, leaving patients to wander these territories alone.

Even worse, some are led to believe that their efforts to maintain health through these practices are a fool’s errand.

The American Cancer Society refers to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as “terms used to describe many kinds of products, practices, and systems that are not part of mainstream medicine.” Later they state that “you may not hear about these treatments from your doctor.”

According to the National Institute for Health (NIH), “Complementary and alternative medicine is a categorical term that covers a broad range of over 100 healing philosophies, approaches, and therapeutic modalities.” NIH goes on to explain that “When the various ‘CAM’ therapies are used instead of conventional/allopathic therapies, they are referred to as alternative; when used in conjunction with conventional treatment to supplement or augment the therapeutic outcome, they are considered to be complementary.”

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) classifies CAM therapies into 5 major groups:

  • Alternative medical systems.
  • Biological medicine.
  • Energy medicine.
  • Manual medicine.
  • Mind/body medicine.

The understanding that all illnesses are linked to body and mind goes back centuries and holistic practices have existed as long as there have been people in need. The fact that the CAM model of treatment often remains in the muddy waters of “unconventional” seems misguided.

Minus the blessing of the medical profession, many people find themselves adrift in these waters when it comes to adding methods to treat the whole, not just the parts. When not being brushed aside by the obligatory, “We can’t recommend that as a treatment,” those interested in thinking outside of the conventional box are often looked upon as foolhardy.

During my cancer treatment, I routinely encountered other patients professing the benefits of whatever tools were a part of their recovery. The information and promises were overwhelming, contradictory, and confusing. It was challenging to decide when the search for alternatives turned into a fool’s errand and how to determine which ones were simply money grabs by peddlers taking advantage of a suffering soul.

I started the cancer journey with a “more is better mentality.” Once the boxes were checked for the traditional methods of surgery, chemo, and radiation therapies, I pulled out my mind/body menu and looked at it like a starving man at a sushi bar. Here is the complete list of my holistic helpers:

  • Hatha Yoga
  • Biblio-therapy
  • Laughing Yoga
  • Meditation/Mindfulness
  • Vitamins
  • Herbal supplements
  • Qi Gong
  • Yoga Nidra
  • Aromatherapy
  • Smudge Stick Ceremonies
  • Reiki
  • Bio-Energy Healing
  • Pet therapy
  • Tele-psychotherapy
  • Prayer/Mantras
  • Therapeutic massage

I realized it was traditional medicine, and the skills of the professionals involved, that removed the tumor growing in my chest and destroyed any remnants. The addition of complementary practices was used, in part, to provide relief from the side effects and restore a sense of wellness.

Whereas chemo drained me of energy and threw my system into a tailspin, yoga helped to return a sense of balance both literally and figuratively. I still remember the feeling of accomplishment when, only a week after open heart surgery, I was able to stand in a tree pose. If there was even the slimmest chance that any, or all, of the above practices would also decrease the chances of cancer’s return, that would be the icing on the cancer-free cake.

Another bonus of jumping on the nontraditional bandwagon is the liberation that comes from no longer being a passive recipient of treatment. Doing things for the mind, body, and spirit feels much better than having things done to these vital systems. Additionally, many of these practices can be shared, eliminating the sense of solitary confinement many patients experience.

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With so many opportunities for misinformation, false promises, and profiting from someone else’s suffering, I developed a litmus test for whatever crossed my radar. Here is the checklist I came up with to eliminate the wheat from the chaff:

1. If it cost more than a 60-minute massage session, it was a “no go,” as I found that in most cases, 60 minutes of massage was hard to beat for relaxation and stress reduction.

2. If it came with a promise to cure cancer, it was filed away with the same methods that promised to end aging, regrow hair, or create limitless wealth.

3. If the person peddling it looked like the poster child for “Don’t let this happen to your body,” I passed on claims to “restore health.”

4. If the only evidence for success were anecdotes from the same people who have been taken up in UFOs, met Bigfoot, or got rich dealing in crypto-currency, I would politely refuse and add them to the block sender list.

5. If the source was a book that had the words secret, hidden, or forbidden in its title, it was given a pass in favor of the latest Stephen King novel.

Perhaps the best news about complementary methods is one does not have to understand, or even believe in, the mechanisms at work to benefit from them. Additionally, traditional methods of treatment have been around for thousands of years and according to the World Health Organization, WHO, represent, “The sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures.”

For many, that puts these practices squarely in the category of pseudoscience or snake oil. If pushed on the issue, I will admit I’ve no scientific proof that anything on the above list aided in my passage from cancer patient to cancer survivor. And while I know that some would argue that they played no role at all and that to think otherwise is simply fooling myself, my response is, “It feels awesome to be a cancer-surviving fool.”

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