As I’ve posted in a number of forums, I support first and foremost the right of each of us to make our own decisions about treatment. Period. While someone may make very different decisions about treatment than I have, I will never question nor criticize that choice. We each need to sleep at night, and the only way to do that is with confidence that we’ve made the best decision we can, and one that is consistent with our values. I will call out anyone who passes judgment on the choices of others regardless of whether they fall in to the “traditional” or “alternative” medicine camps. (Read: I’d love your comments on this post, but when it comes to criticizing others, play nice!)
For the record, it is my personal belief that there is a role for all of it when it comes to my health. I can’t imagine not using every tool in my arsenal (yes, another war metaphor…get over it) to improve my odds. On the other hand, I am a firm believer in evidence-based medicine.
Let’s define our terms.
Conventional medicine is typically offered by a licensed, western medical doctor. These therapies are generally approved by the government, having undergone rigorous scientific testing, clinical trial and peer review. Chemotherapy, radiation, endocrine treatments are all in this camp.
Alternative therapies, by contrast, are typically “folk” medicine and have not necessarily undergone or withstood scientific scrutiny. Essiac tea is one example of a folk remedy…an herbal tea of an Ojibwa medicine man that made its way into mainstream awareness as a cancer remedy by a 1920s nurse in Ontario. (Studies did not support its effectiveness.) Other alternative therapies include mind-body treatments (reiki, yoga, acupuncture) and even prayer.
Complementary treatments combine these two modalities. It takes into account that we are complex beings and that while chemotherapy, for example, may effectively treat some cancers, we can also boost our immune systems, reduce our stress and heal ourselves in all sorts of natural ways. Complementary is also subject to scientific scrutiny, both in terms of the validity of a given treatment modality, and how they impact conventional therapies. Both Vitamin D supplements and phelinus linteus mushrooms are “natural remedies” that are being investigated. Thankfully, we are seeing more this as an area of emerging science.
The landscape is shifting as we learn more about the power of our minds and the value of complementary medicine, and is being helped along by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM, established as part of the NIH in 1992) and Integrative Medicine departments in hospitals and medical schools across the country. I believe this can only be good for all of us.
On the other hand, I’m not sure when the “natural remedy” crowd hooked up with the conspiracy theorists, but all the talk about rejecting science in favor of “alternatives” puzzles me to no end. Just because it’s natural it’s good? Perhaps their remedies fail the evidence-based gold standard, and so it is easiest to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and reject science in all of its manifestations. The mantra: the FDA is eating out of the palm of “Big Pharma,” which make so much money on keeping people sick that they could cure cancer but won’t.
Yes there is money to be made off cancer. Other diseases are the same, of course, but when one’s life is threatened many will spare no expense. However, does that mean that the secret formula to cure cancer is locked in a vault somewhere while scientists and shareholders stand at the cash register? Wouldn’t it make more sense for “Big Pharma” to find the cure, charge what they do for a typical course of chemo, and have a lifetime of patients in need of Viagra and anti-aging creams?
Sure, alternative therapies may be natural…but so is hemlock.