Complementary therapies in cancer care

This short overview is based on a talk I recently gave to the members of Sweet Louise, a New Zealand charity for the support of people with incurable breast cancer.

Complementary therapies can be loosely defined as those not included in orthodox medical training or practice, though this can change, for example acupuncture has been used in pain clinics for many years. Some therapies involve physically touching the body – examples include massage, reflexology, acupuncture. Others involve taking substances by mouth – herbal remedies, homeopathy, flower essences, special diets. Then the mind body therapies such as relaxation, meditation, yoga, visualisation and guided imagery, energy healing. And creative therapies with art, music, writing and dance. Several types can be combined.

They are often known as “natural” therapies, and the same ones may be called “complementary” when used alongside orthodox medical treatments, and “alternative” when used instead. The “integrative” approach combines them both but has been slow to get established, perhaps because of prejudice and misunderstanding on both sides. All these therapies are grounded in the “holistic” approach, which aims to balance the whole person in body, emotions, mind and spirit, and mobilise the potential for self-healing. This is in contrast to the approach of conventional medicine, which uses powerful drugs, surgery or radiation to suppress symptoms and destroy disease, and in which patients have a passive role. Both approaches have their place and can often be used alongside each other.

Surveys show that as many of two thirds of women with breast cancer are using one or more natural therapies, and there is good evidence that they can improve quality of life – helping to relieve physical symptoms such as pain and nausea, mental symptoms such as anxiety and depression, reducing the side-effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. They appeal because, in general, they are safe and natural and many of them are pleasant to receive. When I was practising with the Bach flower remedies, many of my clients told me they wanted a therapy that treated them as a unique person, rather than just one more case of a diseased body part.

While all the modalities have specific effects, their benefit is partly due to their positive influence on mind-body relationships. The self-help element, especially with therapies that require some active user participation, enhances a sense of choice and control. Spending time with an understanding therapist in a relaxed setting is comforting. Expectation of improvement can help to bring it about. Such general factors are important, and it is a mistake to devalue them as “just placebo”.

A key question is whether using these therapies can lead to a longer life expectancy or even to remission of the cancer. Many individual cases of remarkable recovery have been reported. But there are few formal research studies on this aspect, and it is a difficult thing to investigate for many reasons – for example treatments are used in individual combinations rather than standard protocols, and patients’ beliefs and motivation affect the outcome.

Some of the therapies carry risks, for example herbal remedies can have adverse interactions with prescribed drugs; massage and acupuncture occasionally cause physical injury. They can be expensive. The field is not tightly regulated and, while most therapists are skilled and honest, there are a few self-styled practitioners who cause more harm than good by making unrealistic promises of curing cancer while advising clients to refuse conventional treatment that would have been effective.

More detail about these topics, with case histories, can be found in some of my non-fiction books.

Update on introducing Bach flowers to medical doctors

My last post on this blog was about preparing a short talk on the Bach flower remedies for a group of doctors and medical scientists. Several readers asked me to report back, so here is a brief update following the event.

My talk seemed to be well received by the  audience, which represented a wide range of specialties: neurosurgery, rheumatology, oncology, paediatrics, general practice and others. Most of those present had never heard of the remedies before. There were plenty of questions, for example: are the same plants used for similar purposes in herbalism and pharmacology? how exactly did Dr Bach select his flowers? would just looking at the flowers have an effect? At least one person thought that the mode of action must be chemical, but another was familiar with the concept of vibrational healing, pointing out that plants have an energy field as demonstrated by Kirlian photography.

It was encouraging to receive so many positive and open-minded responses, and I was left wishing that there were more opportunities for orthodox clinicians and natural therapists to learn about each others’ work.

Balance, Bach flowers, and holistic healing

Dictionaries define the word ‘balance’ in terms of equilibrium, calmness, and equal distribution – concepts which are key to happiness and healing.

It is often said that the Bach flower remedies work by restoring balance to the personality and emotions. In other words, they help to convert an unduly negative state of mind into its more positive counterpart. The first two remedies discovered by Dr Bach provide clear illustrations of this: Mimulus to promote courage instead of fear, and the aptly-named Impatiens to promote patience for those with an impatient nature. Some more detailed examples:

 Beech: people in the negative Beech state can be critical, intolerant, judgemental and arrogant. The remedy helps them to realise their positive potential of feeling a sense of compassion and unity with others.

Centaury: those in the negative Centaury state find it hard to say ‘no’, and are so anxious to please that they continually let themselves be imposed upon, to their own detriment. In the positive state, though still willing to be of service, they can also fulfil their own needs and follow their own path.

Gorse: the negative state is one of hopelessness and despair, such as is often felt by those who suffer from a chronic illness from which they see no prospect of recovery. The positive potential is a sense of faith and hope, the willingness to try new treatments and the ability to find some positive aspects in the experience of adversity.

Balance is a key concept in relation to holistic healing for medical conditions. Besides emotional balance, this includes balance with regard to lifestyle, and to decisions about the management of illness. However, some people approach it in a quite unbalanced way. For example they may refuse a highly effective orthodox treatment because of their idealogical commitment to ‘natural’ therapies. I gave a few other examples in my book Persons not Diseases. To quote:

‘Some enthusiasts lose their sense of balance by going to extremes which do more harm than good, for example following strict diets which lead to emaciation, nutritional deficiencies or eating disorders; taking excellent care of their physical bodies, but continuing to live with the stress caused by an unhappy marriage or work situation; meditating for many hours each day but not taking any exercise or brushing their teeth properly; spending their life savings on some new ‘miracle therapy’ which has not been properly tested; or becoming so obsessed with health-related issues that they neglect other domains of life relating to work and leisure, home and garden, finances, relationships with family and friends, and spirituality.’

The Bach remedy Vervain can be helpful in curbing the over-enthusiasm of people like this, who are often highly strung, fanatical over-achievers determined to convert others to their own fixed principles and ideas. In the positive Vervain state, while still idealistic and energetic, they are more flexible and relaxed, and can appreciate Dr Bach’s statement that ‘It is by being rather than doing that great things are accomplished’.  

Persons not diseases

People choose to explore natural therapies for many different reasons. One of the main ones given by the clients I see in my work as a Bach flower practitioner is the wish to be valued as a ‘whole person’ whose psychology and life circumstances are unique. Even if their orthodox medical treatment has been successful on a physical level, they often feel that they have been have labelled as ‘just another case’ of the condition in question, being managed according to a set protocol, and that staff lacked either the time or the interest to look beyond their diseased part.

It would be a great mistake to reject the ‘disease-centred’ model which prevails in modern medicine, for this has yielded huge advances in knowledge about the causes, prevention and treatment of specific disorders. And it is good to see mainstream healthcare considering lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise and stress management, which may reduce the need for drugs and surgery. But this is not enough for people who want to explore the personal context of their illness in more depth, which is why they may turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and the ‘holistic healing’ approach.

One of the basic principles of this approach is the focus on persons rather than diseases. The Bach flower system, as originally formulated, exemplifies this – Dr Edward Bach advocated ignoring the medical diagnosis when selecting remedies, and focusing purely on the sufferer’s current state of mind. Involving the patient, or client, as a partner in this process is empowering and therapeutic in itself.

But, as CAM becomes more widely accepted and integrated with orthodox medicine, there is a risk of the person-centred approach being replaced by the ‘one size fits all’ method of giving the same mixture to everyone with a particular condition. This may reflect a wish to appear more ‘scientific’, or be done to save the time and trouble of making an individual assessment of each case. A couple of examples, again involving the Bach flower system, will illustrate the trend.

In a UK chemist’s shop I saw an ‘Emotional Eating Kit’ made up of three remedies: Crab Apple (for body image problems), Cherry Plum (for loss of emotional control) and Chestnut Bud (for those who continually repeat the same mistakes). One or more of these remedies might certainly be appropriate for someone with an eating disorder, but so might several others: Vine (for over-control), Rock Water (for perfectionism and self-denial) and Pine (for self-blame) come to mind, but any of the 38 flowers could be indicated for different individuals.

A search for Bach flower remedies in the medical literature shows that a number of academic researchers have tried to evaluate the system by prescribing a standard mixture of remedies for the condition under study. That they mostly find no advantage over placebo is hardly surprising, because they have not respected an essential feature of this therapy, namely individualized treatment in which clients themselves have choice and control.

Focus on Healing: the ebook



Focus on Healing: Holistic Self-Help for Medical Illness is now available in ebook format on Smashwords. Please click here for details.

The printed version, published a couple of years ago, was well received in New Zealand, but due to high postage costs not many copies were sold overseas. I’m hoping it will now reach a wider audience. Yesterday I was pleased to receive this comment from a reader in the UK:

I think it is quite an outstanding book … really helpful. I particularly like the case histories. It is balanced; it does not tear down either orthodox or so called “complementary” therapies and it encourages the patient to take responsibility without being heavy handed about this.

Again, here is the link.