A recent review of trial data regarding the efficacy of chemotherapy, three Australian oncologists concluded that the overall success rate was in the region of just over 2%. Another Aussie professor disagreed. He felt the overall success rate was more like 5 or 6%…. This is of great interest to me because I have just recently completed a course of the forty-year-old chemotherapy agent 5FU, after the surgical removal of a colon cancer in August 2005. 5FU, I was told, would increase my chances of survival over 5 years from around 50% to 55-60%. I took the course, but the unpleasant side effects of the chemo. over the last 6 months has often seemed a high price to pay for that extra 5-10%.
Generally speaking, these figures epitomize the abysmal success rate of chemotherapy. In fact, although cancer deaths are decreasing marginally, year on year, it is probable that this effect is largely due to more intensive screening of the general population and the resulting surgery. Spotting a cancer soon enough, followed by surgery where practical, still represents the best option for long term survival. It is true that there are a few cancers for which a specific, effective and targeted drug is available. Chronic myeloid leukemia is one. But all in all, chemotherapy is very expensive, not very successful, and has horrendous side effects that can make the patient’s life a misery, and leave lasting damage in its wake.
The term ‘success rate’ needs to be defined. The three Aussie professors defined it as ‘survival over 5 years’. On the other hand, for the new, anti-angiogenesis colorectal cancer drug, Avastin, success is defined as around two additional months survival. Oh, and death as a ‘side effect’ of Avastin (due to thrombosis, heart attack etc.) is more than 4 times as likely than with the treatment it is intended to replace. Incidentally, we are talking here about ‘absolute success rates’. Cancer drug statistics are often presented as ‘relative success rates’, because they look better. For example, if cancer drug A shows a success rate of 2%, and cancer drug B shows 4%, the marketing men and even oncologists will present drug B as being 100% more effective than drug A, though the absolute success rate is a mere 2% better. Yet this success rate may only equate to an additional month or so of survival. Or not even that. Even some tumour shrinkage is claimed as a success, though it may make no difference at all to patient survival! As the saying goes, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
With all the billions of dollars/pounds/euros etc. spent on cancer research over the last half century, you would have thought that cancer treatment would be more advanced. The reality is that a great deal of basic medical research has been done into understanding the nature and causes of cancer, but it rarely gets translated into better treatments. One of the most thoroughly studied areas of research concerns the wide range of naturally available substances that possess cancer preventative, cancer inhibiting and even cancer curative properties. Mostly, these comprise ‘phytochemicals’ from plants, mushrooms etc. – substances increasingly known as nutriceuticals or nutraceuticals. Many of these have become the basis of a huge nutritional supplements industry because despite all the research, they are not available as a part of standard medical treatment.
The reasons are various. Firstly, under current legislation, pharmaceutical products require full clinical trials before they can be sold. Although this is desirable, such trials are very costly – in the region of several hundred million pounds/euros/dollars. No company will spend this much on a product unless it can be patented, and – generally speaking – plants and their extracts cannot be patented. Moreover, in many instances, a plant extract may have a number of substances that act together (synergy) to create the therapeutic effect, making isolation and testing of a suitable saleable product far more complex.
Therefore, without changes to the legislation governing the use and availability of nutriceuticals as adjuvants to standard cancer treatment, the only option for a cancer patient who wants to make use of all this research right now is either to consult a private and well-informed practitioner of integrative medicine who specializes in cancer care, or to adopt a do-it-yourself approach (not really recommended!) – or a combination of the two.
It is no surprise to discover that more than half of chemotherapy patients resort to the use of complementary or adjuvant treatments to help them through. Not without reason. Some of the complementary treatment options substantially reduce the rates of recurrence and metastases. Some are even an accepted part of standard cancer treatment in countries outside the UK and the USA. Among these are the medicinal mushroom extracts used to great effect in China and Japan, Avemar in Hungary, Ukrain in Austria, and mistletoe extract used in Switzerland and Germany. All of these, and many more such options, can significantly increase a person’s chances, not only of short-term survival, but of remaining cancer-free for many years to come. They can also help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Many people know of the existence of some of these complementary and alternative cancer therapies, but until faced with the disease either in oneself or a loved one, few feel the need to investigate in detail. And when a closer look is taken, it is not long before information overload sets in. There is just so much data out there, so many possibilities, so much sales hype, and so many hidden agendas, that to assimilate, assess and act upon it is not so simple. There are probably over 100 complementary and alternative treatment options for cancer. Making use of the best of these is a good idea, for it is generally accepted that it is the pro-active cancer patients, who set about doing something to help themselves, who have the best chances of recovery and longer-term survival. But how to decide on which treatment options to use? Clearly it’s an individual decision, but seeking the advice of an open-minded professional who is conversant with all the options (i.e. integrated medicine) is a good place to start. In the real world, however, it is difficult to find such a person. This means that you may need to gently educate your doctor! So, when consulting an expert, it’s as well to go forearmed with information on the therapies that interest you.
As an aid to decision-making in the field of complementary cancer treatments, it is a helpful to categorize the various options according to their function: immuno-modulators and boosters, inducers of cell death (apoptosis), anti-angiogenesis agents (inhibitors of blood supply to a tumour), antioxidants, and so on. This can help provide the basis of a possible personal treatment plan. It could also be the subject of a research project in itself.
When assessing complementary treatments, it always makes sense to question the available data, adopting an attitude of open-minded scepticism. A balanced approach is advisable. There are ‘fundamentalists’ and fanatics in both the complementary and conservative camps. The ‘quackbusters’ automatically jump on anything that smacks of an alternative, using strong rhetoric, distorted information, and questionable logic to try and discredit both the alternatives and their proponents. Most of the mainstream cancer agencies and research centres are quick to point out that many complementary therapies are founded on slender data, and feel constrained to advise against their use until more information is available. This is the “Do nothing till you hear from me” approach, despite the fact that the one thing most cancer patients do not have is time. On the other hand, some of the proponents of the alternatives are so radical that they see conspiracies at every step. There probably are a few cover ups (on both sides of the fence), but generally the inertia of the system and the current insistence on costly trials of non-toxic nutriceuticals prevent even the most useful adjuvants and complementary options from being integrated into mainstream Western medicine.
In my personal experience, the doctors and nurses I have met in the UK’s National Health Service have been invariably supportive of the use of complementary options. In fact, it was from their request to write down what I was doing that my website (www.self-helpcancer.org) detailing a great many of these options came into existence. Many of these caring professionals are working within the constraints of a system with which they themselves do not fully agree. It is the restrictions of the unthinking system that prevents good alternatives and adjuvants from being made available. But since it is human beings who have created and who administer that system, we should also be able to change it, despite the mindset of those who will always strive to maintain the status quo, however outdated it may be.
In order for cancer patients to actually benefit from the all the research that has been done, the nutriceutical and complementary approach needs to be integrated into standard cancer treatment. Treatment regimens or protocols need to be devised so that the most promising complementary options get used. New legislation regarding the use of non-toxic nutriceuticals is required in order to allow this to happen. Then hundreds of thousands of cancer patients a year will reap the benefits. And that, surely, must be the primary consideration.