Remedies That Help Cope
With Conventional Cancer Treatments
by Alexandra Dundas Todd
When my twenty-one-year-old son, Drew, was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive head tumor (chondrosarcoma), he started down two parallel roads to a successful recovery: the Western, conventional path as well as the Eastern, complementary one. Within one week of the diagnosis he was undergoing surgery, seeing an acupuncturist, doing visualizations, and changing his diet to a modified macrobiotic regimen. Over the following five months he underwent a second surgery and intensive proton beam radiation. Throughout this ordeal he healed quickly, felt strong, and suffered no side effects from the radiatioin.
Not everyone is so fortunate. On the first day of Drew's radiation in December 1991 we met Karen in the waiting room. A large woman in her 30s, Karen sat with one leg tucked under her, an elbow resting on a white bed pillow, her face blotched with dark butterfly-shaped marks spreading from one cheek, across the bridge of her nose, to the other cheeck. She looked at us sympathetically. I asked her how she was and what she was being treated for.
"I'm not doing so great," Karen replied. She went on to describe the tumor in the side of her head that her doctors had only partially removed.
"How long have you been receiving radiation?"
"Six weeks, and I don't know if it's the cancer or the radiation that's killing me. The first three weeks were okay, and then everything fell apart."
"What happened?" I asked, both wanting and not wanting to know.
"Well, there's the nausea. It comes and goes. But worse is the metal taste in my mouth all the time. It makes everything taste the same, and I can hardly stand it. Lately I've been getting headaches, and about a week ago my face started changing colors. I'm so tired all the time and can't do nothing, so I guess I'm not doing too good."
Headaches, nausea, metal taste, fatigue. These were symptoms Drew's fellow radiation patients reported regularly. He went into radiation feeling well, and he remained so through eight weeks of intensive treatments.
Friends were impressed and suggested I write about his experiences. I am a medical sociologist and they felt I could build on Drew's use of diverse medicines to help others. My first reaction was a definite, "No--too painful." But one evening, I sat down at the kitchen table and started writing. It became an autobiographical imperative. It felt important to imbed Drew's story in the vast amounts of international research being done on complementary therapies. Below are a few of the therapies/remedies I found that can help people cope with the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
(Sections of this article are revised excerpts from Double Vision: An East-West Collaboration for Coping with Cancer, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1994. For more information see Apendices A-D.)
No people in the world have had more dealings with radiation than the Japanese. Researchers in Japan have done extensive studies of the effects of radiation on the body, whether from bombs or cancer treatments, and of how to temper those effects. For example, Kazumitsu Watanabe, professor of cancer and radiation research a Hiroshima University's atomic bomb research center, reports that when miso soup, a soy product, is eaten regularly, people may be more resistant to the aftermath of radiation. He studied small-intestine cells of mice. Even when X-rays at levels lethal to humans were administered to the mice, 60 percent survived as opposed to 9 percent of the mice not fed miso soup. Akihiro Ito, head of one of the research teams at Hiroshima University, found that miso helps eliminate toxins from the body through stimulation of the circulatory and metabolic systems, which makes it also possibly useful when undergoing chemotherapy.
Basic Miso Soup: Add 1 teaspoon hacho or barley miso to 3/4 cup warming water with 1/2 inch finely shredded kombu or wakame seaweed. Cook gently for 2 to 3 minutes; never boil.
Canadians and Japanese researchers have done suggestive studies on sea vegetables (kombu, wakame, kelp) and detoxifying the body. The sea vegetables adhere to excess radiation and toxins, and remove them from the body. They are also rich in minerals and vitamins for strengthening during times of such stress. These studies, combined with anectotal stories, convinced Drew to try (to him) exotic foods.
Both the Japanese and Germans have amassed considerable amounts of data on herbal remedies for a wide range of conditions. For example, echinacea, an immune system enhancing herb used by Native Americans has been scientifically tested for helping to treat cancer and the side effects of conventional cancer treatments. P. Pohl reported in 1969 that an echinacea compound increased leukocytes in people undergoing radiation. H. Wagner and A. Proksch of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology at the University of Munich, in 1985, discussed the immunostimulant properties of the herb as an adjunct to chemotherapy.
Studies and clinical reports from China show that when the Chinese herb astragulus is combined with interleukin-2, the highly toxic interleukin can be greatly reduced. When used with the chemotherapy cyclophosphamide, immune suppression is reversed.
Drew did not lose his hair during radiation except for one small patch on the top of his head, easily covered by the rest of his shaggy thatch. But millions of people undergoing radiation and chemotherapy do experience hair loss. In fact, physicians complain that some people decline conventional treatments based on fear of baldness and the physical and psychological stigmas attached to such a visible change. Women, in particular, report feeling degraded and spotlighted despite wigs and scarves. Thus a promising antidote to hair loss should be especially heralded. In a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, Lee Wood writes that a vitamin E taken before and during use of the chemotherapy doxorubicin, prevented hair loss. Wood concluded that, "If these results can be confirmed, one of the most emotionally devastating side effects of cancer chemotherapy will have been ameliorated or largely eliminated" (NEJM, 1985, 312;1060).
Studies of vitamins C and B6 also show promising results for easing toxic effects of conventional cancer treatments. Hans A. Ladner and Richard M. Salkeld of the Department of Radiology, University Gynecology Clinic in Germany, reviewed studies of B6 and conducted their own investigations of women with various gynecological cancers. They found that B6 taken daily during radiotherapy avoided common vitamin B6 deficiency, improved tolerance of the standard treatments, decreased nausea and diarrhea and increased survival rate by 15 percent. Despite controversy over whether vitamin C helps, hinders, or has no effect on tumors, there is evidence that ascorbic acid reduces the ill effects of radiation treatments. Based on a study of 20 patients, Alfred B. Hanck found that vitamin C usage decreased pain and anemia while increasing appetite and weight. Studies of both vitamin C and E show they can protect against possible cardiac damage by the chemotherapy doxorubicin.
These are just a few of the myriad remedies that I found, some of which we used to help Drew, others I included in my writings in the hopes that they will help others. As with any medicine, proper instruction, dosage and so forth are critical. There are trained professionals all over the country now (found through national organizations, local health food stores, word of mouth), and my hope is that increasing interest on the part of the American public and some health care professionals will encourage availability of information. Given the intriguing findings of the remedies mentioned above, we can't afford not to pay close attention.
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Alexandra Dundas Todd is Professor of Sociology at Suffolk University in Boston. Her latest book is Double Vision: An East-West Collaboration for Coping with Cancer (Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1994). Drew Todd is a graduate student in Film Studies at Boston University.
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