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UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of NIH, is conducting research into a variety of therapies that might help cancer patients. Studies are typically funded after clinical evidence suggests a treatment shows promise. Currently under investigation:

European mistletoe
Already widely used in Europe, this plant is being tested in conjunction with the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine in patients with pancreatic, lung, colorectal and breast cancer.

Electroacupuncture
This therapy shows promise as a treatment for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

Yoga
May be beneficial as a treatment for persistent fatigue in breast cancer patients.

Pancreatic enzyme therapy
Being tested in patients with pancreatic cancer.

Reiki/energy healing
This popular therapy is being tested in patients with prostate cancer.

Vegetable/herbal supplements
For use in patients with lung cancer.

Your Health

Battling Cancer

Fringe Therapies Go Mainstream

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— Photo by Darryl Estrine

“We spend half of our time working against quackery,” says Cassileth. “It’s really a bad situation. What patients see on the Internet is extremely seductive.” To counter the wave of unsubstantiated claims, both M.D. Anderson and Memorial Sloan-Kettering maintain websites that offer the latest research findings on hundreds of purported cancer therapies.

Search for evidence
For most therapies, definitive evidence is hard to come by. Researchers are keenly interested in curcumin, for example, a botanical that has been used for a long time in Ayurvedic medicine, a healing system of India. “We know it’s extremely safe even at high doses. What we don’t know yet is whether it’s effective,” says Cohen. Researchers at M.D. Anderson are currently studying its use for multiple myelomas and rectal cancer.

Researchers are also interested in medicinal mushrooms from traditional Chinese medicine. Widely used in China for centuries, they appear to be safe, and laboratory evidence suggests that they may act against cancer cells. But proof that they fight the disease in patients will take time—something many cancer patients don’t have. “My approach is, if something is safe and there’s a chance that it may help, why not encourage patients who are interested to give it a try?” says Donald Abrams, M.D., who directs research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Healing power
Indeed, doing something, anything, may have healing powers of its own. “Cancer patients feel helpless. Their bodies are turning on them,” says psychiatrist David Spiegel, M.D., who directs the Stanford University Center for Integrative Medicine. “To the extent that we can give them a sense of power, of control, we can improve their quality of life and, I think, perhaps even affect the course of the disease.”

Reducing levels of stress hormones in the body, some experts believe, may also reduce inflammation and promote healing. “We’re more and more aware that inflammation is damaging in many ways,” says Abrams. “By decreasing it, we think we may be able to boost the body’s fight against cancer. I don’t think stress is a major cause of cancer. But I think stress hormones may make cancer more aggressive. So anything we can do to reduce stress may help.”

Therapies offer hope

One of Abrams’ patients, a 76-year-old retired associate professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has metastatic kidney cancer. Along with a strict diet that eliminates meat, dairy products and refined sugars, he goes in once a week for reiki therapy, which proponents claim can focus healing energies within the body. “I say to myself, unless these are going to hurt me, I don’t see what I have to lose,” says the doctor, who asked that his name not be used. “I’m sitting here waiting with this metastatic cancer. It makes me feel better to be doing something. Do I hope it will help slow the disease? Of course I do.”

And hope, integrative oncologists say, may be potent medicine.

“The concept of hope and a fighting spirit, how powerful can that be in fighting cancer? We don’t know,” says Gary Elkins, director of the Mind Body Medicine Research Laboratory at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “But we do know that there’s a very strong placebo effect in medicine. If a patient believes something will work, it often does. Researchers try to rule out the placebo effect in studies of drugs. But if you’re in the business of caring for patients, if something works, we should use it.”

Meanwhile, researchers still hope to find new and effective treatments among the range of unconventional approaches being tested. “Traditional healing systems like Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine have been used for centuries,” says Abrams. “I can’t help but think they have insights to offer us today.”

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.

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