In the mid 90’s I saw Gene, a 60 year old, retired postal worker who presented with pancreatic cancer with metastasis to the liver and with lymphocytic leukemia. This was not good news for anyone. The fact that he was one month from retirement at the time of diagnosis was heart breaking. He and his wife had been through a lot over the years and had been looking forward to this time of life. The pancreatic cancer presented some eleven months before with pain in the upper abdomen. Gene reported feeling heartburn; burping helped some. The pain radiated to the back, directly behind the place of pain. The pain was worse sitting up and worse from thinking about it. For years Gene had terrific pains across the anterior abdomen which were worse from eating peanuts or potato chips or other high fat foods He occasionally would still have those pains.
I do not know if it is true for all homeopaths but it seems that during my earlier years of practice I saw many pregnant women and young children and lots of growing families. I still see these patients, but as my patient population has aged, I am seeing more patients with serious pathology and more patients that have or have had cancer. What is the role of the homeopath when a patient presents with a cancer diagnosis and what can we expect homeopathy and other natural medicines to do for a patient who has cancer or has had cancer in the past?
We all want to know ways to help our patients, friends and loved ones when they have this diagnosis. Though many kinds of cancers curtail life expectancy, many types of cancer are not the death sentence they once were. Between early diagnosis, aggressive allopathic approaches as well as complementary and alternative medicine offerings, many people with cancer live long and healthy, productive lives post diagnosis. Homeopathic and other natural medicine care is relevant and helpful for patients with cancer whether used at the time of diagnosis, during allopathic care or afterward for healing and prevention of further disease.
Patients that present with a recent diagnosis of cancer usually want information to help in getting through surgeries, chemotherapy and/or radiation. They are looking for help to reduce side effects and increase efficacy of the allopathic approaches they are using. Homeopathy as well as other nutritional and botanical medicine offerings can go a long way to support someone who is being treated for cancer.
I also have numerous patients who come to see me a year or two after their cancer treatments have been completed. They generally come in for one of two reasons. First are those whom, though they no longer have cancer, just do not feel well. Perhaps they are tired, or feel they are not thinking clearly or maybe they do not sleep well or feel depressed. The second group consists of patients who feel well enough, but are seeking all the help they can find to prevent recurrence of the cancer. Regardless of which category a cancer patient falls into, there is plenty to offer.
Some patients who are diagnosed with cancer are seemingly asymptomatic. A breast lump is discovered on mammogram or a prostate cancer is diagnosed after an elevated PSA is noted. For patients like this, I generally take the full homeopathic case and prescribe a constitutional remedy; I will include my understanding of the cancer in my analysis, but I am also clear to understanding it in the context of the patient’s overall health, their review of systems and their physical general symptoms. The stress of the diagnosis itself generally pushes patients further into whatever constitutional remedy they may have needed before. Sometimes the stress of the diagnosis is so great or perhaps triggers intense response due to family or personal history, that the patient is bumped into another state altogether.
I do not have preconceived ideas about how I will prescribe except to know that I will be looking for the most broadly acting remedy to support the patient in the most broadly possible way during their cancer treatments. As to whom I am treating in this situation, occasionally this is a patient in my practice, though, like many practicing homeopaths it seems that the number of patients I have treated over many years who go on to develop cancer, is rather low. Usually it is a patient that is new to me, so I do not have the luxury of knowing what constitutional remedy they needed before; nonetheless, I give medicines that have a wide sphere of influence, knowing this is the best place to start. I will be alert to the possibility that another remedy or other remedies might be indicated during the course of the cancer treatments, based on how the patient responds to those approaches. Again, this will be individualized based on how the patient responds to treatment. I instruct the patient to call me if needed, if side effects are becoming intolerable, if the spirits are really taking a hit or if there are other seemingly acute illnesses that arise during treatment.
Other patients present with tremendous symptomatology from the cancer, like one patient I will describe in this article. The cancer may cause strong symptoms in the digestive tract or the respiratory tract or the musculoskeletal system or in overall energy level due to changes in red blood cell levels. There may be symptoms related to where the cancer is located in the body. This patient might also need their constitutional remedy if the symptoms that present are within the purview of that remedy. For instance, perhaps I have a patient that has done well over the years with the remedy Phosphorus and is now undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She may develop more symptoms, such as easy bruising and extreme fatigue due to her treatments, but she still remains, open, in need of affection and attention and very thirsty. She may be more intensely anxious and be struggling with diarrhea, a new symptoms for her. But each of her issues is still well covered by the remedy Phosphorus. I do not go looking for other remedies if I know the presenting symptoms continue to fall under those helped by Phosphorus.
A patient may well need a different remedy, something more germane to a set of new symptoms that have arisen and the way the cancer or cancer treatments impact the whole person, physically and psychologically. We can see the cancer, the diagnosis of cancer and the treatments for the cancer each as stressors on the system. Most people respond to stressors in predictable and patterned ways such as described above. But some respond by developing new symptoms not covered by their usual constitutional remedy and will need a new or different remedy. If the patient described above presents with easy bruising and bothersome diarrhea but has become extra anxious and critical and difficult to please, she may well have shifted into needing Arsenicum album, a remedy that certainly shares attributes with Phosphorus, but has its own picture too.
I stay alert to all the possibilities. Like any illness, there are no set remedies to give based on say what type of cancer or where the cancer is. There is no list to go check against and prescribe accordingly. Oh how we sometimes wish there were! But homeopathy’s beauty, its challenge, its promise, is to find medicines that fit the particular patient at a particular time. To the newer prescribers that I train, a patient with cancer can seem daunting, the stakes seem higher, but in truth, it is the very same tools of the trade, the careful case taking, the understanding of all aspects of the patient that will lead to the best remedy possible.
Gene had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for some years but not for over 20 years. He has never consumed much alcohol. He had bowel movements 2-3x a day and desired sweet and salty. He had a poor sense of smell and taste and was not especially thirsty. Gene had lost thirty-six pounds after surgery but had put back on 20 or so during his recuperation. Since the tumor Gene reported sweating profusely at night in bed and needing to have a fan blow on him continuously through the night. The sweat poured off his back and head exclusively. He had labored breathing obvious in the office that day. He had difficulty climbing stairs, felt short of breath and weak especially through the knees, arms shoulders and hips. He would get bad cramps in his legs and in his hands which were worse since he’d been placed on Prednisone.
He had an enlarged spleen and had fainted a few times in the last few months. When he was younger, he would pass out at the sight of blood. He has had terrible gas ever since the surgery, with constant belching and passing gas which gives some relief. His past medical history includes a tonsillectomy at age 12, had a vasectomy in his forties and history of thyroid cancer also in his forties; he is hypertensive.
When asked to describe his temperament he says, “I am a pussycat. It takes a lot to get me going. I don’t need friends too much, although I have a few and enjoy them.” He doesn’t like change. If things are going well, he prefers not to change them. He was an only child. Kids picked on him a lot. He says, “I was portly.” He was very pleasant, supporting his wife at every turn, holding her hand, being incredibly upbeat considering his diagnosis and prognosis.
The severe nature of his shortness of breath ameliorated by the constant fanning coupled with his digestive distress pointed to the remedy Carbo vegetablis This kind and gentle man received much help from this remedy within the week. Had he always needed Carbo vegetablis? It is hard to know as I had never treated him before. Perhaps he had needed Lycopodium earlier and had gone into a Carbo vegetablis state? He gained immediate strength and was even able to resume his model airplane hobby. He was better able to breath and his problem with gas was greatly reduced. His still had flatulence but it was limited to the after dinner hour and it was not as intense or long lasting. We waited with this prescription and told him to call if other problems arose.
I saw him next two months later when he reported that he was in a lot of pain. There did not seem to be any position or activity or medication which would help him and he could not bear it any longer. The gas pains as he described them were incessant and strong; added to that, he was unable to get a good breath. I felt he had relapsed along with a continuation of his progressive pathology and gave Carbo vegetablis in a higher strength. He was at the same time receiving further chemotherapy. After the remedy, he felt the pain was under control and his breathing was improved.
This was an example of treating the symptoms of the cancer alongside other allopathic care. The remedies worked to give him symptomatic relief over the course of six months. Gene did die of his cancer and I treated him right up and through that time with more Carbo vegetablis and then with Arsenicum album, when his anxiety and fear of death was more than he could bear. This pattern of needing one remedy then perhaps another and then winding up at Arsenicum album, though not universal, is certainly common.
Alicia was another cancer patient of mine who came to my office about a half year after completing radiation treatments for breast cancer in the late nineties. She had had a lumpectomy, gone through chemotherapy and had finished 28 radiation treatments. At forty five, she was just hitting her stride as a lawyer and was an active mother of two robust teenaged sons. She took her diagnosis and the treatment plan on with energy and organization. I was on her list of people to see as she put together what she called her Dream Team of advisors, doctors, therapists and family/friends. At the time of our first visit her only request was that I help her “keep healthy so the cancer won’t come back.” She also wanted help with the lymphedema she had in the left arm on the same side where she had the surgery and radiation. She also had a full body rash that was red, slightly raised and itchy, worse when she became warm especially after a shower, in bed or if she was out walking.
Alicia’s health history was remarkably negative. She was a long time vegetarian, who had been running and doing yoga regularly for decades. There was no family history of cancer, most lived into their eighties and nineties. The irony of her diagnosis did not seem to bother her; she told me, “Look, bad things happen to good people,” and she was just going to get on with it; do what she could to live a healthy and long life.
I took her homeopathic case and prescribed the remedy Sulphur. She had the left sided complaint along with an itchy bothersome skin rash; she was outgoing and upbeat. She was, beside the fact that she had breast cancer, quite healthy.
I also instructed her on how to do alternating hot and cold soaks to her left hand to get the circulation going in addition to the physical therapy she was doing. Alicia was interested in a vitamin/mineral/botanical medicine program which I created based on her history, her diet and her willingness to make certain lifestyle changes. A month after the remedy Alicia returned to my office to say that the swelling and range of motion were improving on her left side and that she was feeling good. The rash was still visible, though fading and no longer itchy. I have worked with Alicia on and off the past ten years, through the changes of the chemotherapy-induced menopause, treating other things that have cropped up, acute infections, allergies and through the launching of her children off to college. Sometimes I prescribe a remedy, sometimes other naturopathic treatments. She has remained free of the cancer and has learned much about taking care of herself.
In terms of cancer and other natural medicine approaches, in my experience an integrative approach is best. No one practitioner has all the answers. No one philosophy has to be embraced to the exclusion of others. There is increasing availability and access to information on how to take the best from seemingly different paradigms. The most important things are to be sure there is full disclosure on all sides, so all practitioners and physicians understand what the patient might be trying. Another essential piece is that recommendations be made specifically for the patient at hand, with their particular diagnosis in mind as well as a clear comprehension of which allopathic medications/procedures are being used. For those wanting to receive an integrative approach under one roof, I have referred numerous patients to The Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). From their website description: “(CTCA) combines the latest medical, surgical and radiological therapies with supportive therapies like nutrition, mind-body medicine, physical therapy, naturopathy and spiritual wellness, bringing to bear many novel and innovative weapons against your specific type of cancer…..The CTCA network of treatment facilities presently consists of its flagship hospitals in Zion, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a comprehensive care program in Seattle, Washington.” For further information see their website at . Their phone number is 1-800-615-3055.
For some of the more common side effects to chemotherapy I will prescribe homeopathic remedies acutely. I will also suggest some tried and true naturopathic approaches. It should also be noted that in the past decades the discovery and prescribing of allopathic medications for the prevention and treatment of chemotherapy side effects has made tremendous advances. Most issues that arise do so based on the particular chemo being given; speaking with the oncologist about possible side effects ahead of time will often result in additional and effective prescriptions.
For those interested in natural treatments for side effects, be aware that some natural medicine approaches interfere with the efficacy of chemotherapy and need to be avoided. For the most current and up-to-date information about which substances are both effective and safe to use based on the chemotherapy prescribed, see Alternative Medicine Magazine’s Definitive Guide to Cancer: An Integrative Approach to Prevention, Treatment and Healing by Lise Alschuler, ND and Karolyn A.Gazella. This book, published in its second edition by Celestial Arts, of Berkeley, California in 2007 contains a wealth of information and is presented in a reader-friendly and accessible fashion. In particular, Chapter 10 Supporting your Body During Conventional Treatment does an impressive job looking at most common chemotherapeutic agents and then in chart form listing among other things, the common side effects, those nutrients and herbs which both support the efficacy of the chemotherapeutic drug and address side effects and finally, the nutrients and herbs that must be avoided. There are few routine prescriptions in this area; they must be individualized to the patient.
Many cancer patients will seek advice to complement their allopathic treatment plans and with homeopathy and other approaches we have much to offer. You can be part of your patient’s or family member’s Dream Team by finding appropriate homeopathic remedies and other gentle therapies that support the body’s efforts to heal even when the diagnosis is cancer.