a natural killer cell

A human Natural Killer cell under an electron microscope (colorized image). NK cells are central to our immune defenses in general, and in particular against cancer. Micrographic image published by NIAID (the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) via Creative Commons license.

Treatment Target #5: Oxidation:

Chemotherapy and radiation kill cancer cells; the problem is, they also kill the healthy cells of the body. Antioxidants protect the healthy cells of the body from chemo and radiation; the problem is, they may also protect the cancer cells… As you can imagine, then, using antioxidants alongside conventional therapies is controversial.

Or at least it is in theory. When we look past theory, however – when we look at the actual research – it quickly becomes a lot less controversial. I found a very well-documented summary of the research, in “Antioxidants in Cancer Therapy: Actions and Interactions with Oncologic Therapies,” (Alternative Medicine Review, 1999, 4(5): 304-329; online at http://www.thorne.com/altmedrev/.fulltext/4/5/304.pdf). The writers of this paper analyzed over 30 animal studies and over 30 human trials, and found only 3 cases where antioxidants made the chemo or radiation less effective – that’s less than 5% of the time! That 5% is still an issue, of course, but it certainly doesn’t justify a blanket condemnation of antioxidants, especially since in over 85% of cases, antioxidants either protected the patient, made the chemo work better, or both.

Before combining antioxidants with conventional therapies, you should of course research the specific combination you’re interested in. Since the Alternative Medicine Review paper was published in 1999, you might look for more up-to-date information on the National Institute of Health’s internet medical database (Medline) at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed/ (Medline is a great place to look for just about anything!)

Beyond the research, I simply like the idea of using antioxidants. Maybe it’s just the old natural medicine prejudice towards nourishing the body over attacking the illness…?

When it comes to antioxidants, go for variety! Look to fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin E complex with lots of gamma-tocopherol, lots of CoQ10, and beta-carotene plus the other carotenoids. Look for sulfur-containing antioxidants like NAC and alpha-lipoic acid, to help your body make glutathione, which protects it from radiation. Take tons of water-soluble vitamin C, and look for all the fruit-and-berry compounds that help vitamin C work: ellagic acid from strawberries, raspberries, and pomegranate; OPCs from grapes and blueberries; flavonoids from citrus; especially quercitin… the list goes on and on. As a rule, the darker-colored it is (and the better at staining your clothing!) the more powerful an antioxidant it is. Pay special attention to turmeric and green tea. Whatever you take, spread it out throughout the day. (And of course antioxidants are still extremely valuable even if you’re not on chemo or radiation).

Treatment Target #6: Toxicity:

Detoxification is a cornerstone of most traditional cancer protocols, and for good reason. A toxic load often contributes to carcinogenesis, and the fight against cancer only increases that load, with wastes produced by your immune system, many cancer drugs, and the cancer itself. Whatever these toxins may be, they put a strain on you just when you need your strength the most. There isn’t much formal research here, but the traditional and theoretical foundations behind detox make sense.

Most detox protocols aim to stimulate your body’s own pathways of detoxification, using herbs to stir up the lymph, flush the liver, and act as laxatives. This is a great way to start your battle against cancer, but be cautious when you’re already in the thick of the fight: a detox can be exhausting for a weakened system. If you’re already feeling weakened, you should probably avoid the more aggressive detoxes, or use lower doses.

Perhaps the most widely used product is Essiac tea (sold under various names – the actual “Essiac” brand is badly overpriced). Two other noteworthy products are Flor-Essence, by the Flora company (a sort of “expanded Essiac”), and Herbal Aloe Force from Herbal Answer.

Drink plenty of water, and make sure to maintain a healthy intestinal tract with a high dose, broad-spectrum probiotic, and fiber.

It’s also worth nourishing the liver. The liver is our main organ of detoxification, and if you’re fighting cancer it will be under a tremendous strain. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Schizandra (Schisanda sinensis), and Turmeric (Curcuma longum) are just a few of the many herbs which act more to protect the liver than to aggressively detox it.

Detox is controversial not only because of the lack of formal research, but because cancer drugs are in fact toxins: by supporting detox (especially via the liver), you may be decreasing circulating levels of these very drugs. No reason you can’t detox and take the drugs at the same time; your doctor will just want to monitor the drug levels and adjust the dosage if necessary.

Treatment Target #7: Diet:

Again, I can’t cite much solid research here, but there seems to be a theme running through most of the recommendations I read: eat healthy! A diet focused on whole grains, quality lean protein, raw vegetables and fluids is recommended. Sashimi would be an ideal food in cancer. Fresh vegetable juices and “green drinks” are always recommended. Darkly colored berries are great.

Avoid junk, fried food, hydrogenated oils, preservatives and sugar like the plague. (Here, “sugar” includes natural sugars like honey, maple syrup, and pasteurized juices).

Look for foods that are easy to digest.

Seek out organics.

Eat a piece of seaweed every day.

In estrogen-driven cancers, avoid estrogen-mimickers like many pesticides, and foods and drinks that have been sitting around too long in plastic containers.

A whey protein-based shake is excellent for maintaining your strength, and reducing or preventing cachexia, due to its high protein quality and high levels of the amino acid glutamine. (Additional glutamine, up to 10 g, 3 times a day, may be useful in severe cachexia).

Try the following recipe once or twice a day. 30 g whey protein, ¼ pound frozen blueberries, ½ banana, 1 tbsp flax oil, 1 tbsp lecithin, one serving of green drink, plus just enough water to let the blender run. Delicious, too!

Digestive enzymes with each meal will help you get the most out of whatever you eat, and are especially indicated in cancers that compromise digestion, i.e. pancreatic, liver, etc.

Other issues like essential fatty acid balance and antioxidants are covered elsewhere in this article. And take a multivitamin!

Treatment Target #8: Total, Holistic Wellness:

The healthier you are, the better chance you have in this fight. I could write 20 pages on this. But I won’t. Try to incorporate some type of bodywork like massage. Exercise in ways that are pleasant to you, and rest deeply.

Rest leads to the subject of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain when it’s dark out. It helps coordinate our wake/sleep cycles with day and night. It may also improve sleep quality and trigger deep repair processes, and for this reason, is an experimental treatment for cancer. I found 4 small studies where 10-20 mg of melatonin a night doubled the one-year survival rate in very serious cancers.

Psychological wellness is profoundly important. I’m not qualified to lecture anyone on spirituality. We each have to find our own path to tranquility, happiness, wholeness and meaning. Let go of anger. Join a support group. Take a walk or a swim. Learn to play the saxophone. Live life, sing, play, meditate, scream, laugh, cry… I don’t know. Whatever you choose, just please don’t neglect this aspect of your journey back to wellness.

Treatment Target #9: The Side Effects of Conventional Oncologic Therapies:

Nausea and loss of appetite: try to avoid your favorite foods when you’re badly nauseous because it could turn you off to them permanently. Ginger and peppermint are often useful with nausea. Tinctures of cardamom, cloves, lavender, and nutmeg are traditionally used to stimulate appetite. It is beyond the scope of this paper to go into the vast amount of positive research that has been conducted on medicinal marijuana

Lowered hematocrit: all of the medicinal mushrooms can raise a depleted red blood cell count. Cordyceps mushroom may be especially useful, as it not only can raise your hematocrit, but also may increase oxygen uptake from the lungs. There are also anecdotal reports that the herb Suma (Pfaffia paniculata) and beef liver (organic!) can help as well.

Sores from radiation: topically, it’s hard to beat good ol’ aloe vera gel, comfrey, and vitamin E, although the Aromatic Healing Balm put out by Skye botanicals is also a wonderful product. Beta-carotene internally may greatly reduce the incidence of mouth sores. The study I found used 400,000 i.u. a day for three weeks, then 125,000 i.u. a day thereafter.

Treatment Target #10 – Knowledge:

Educate yourself! Two excellent places to start are How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine, by Drs Michael Murray, Tim Birdsall, Joseph Pizzorno, and Paul Reilly; and An Alternative Medicine Definitive Guide to Cancer, by Drs. John Diamond & W. Lee Cowden, with Burton Goldberg.

Keep a diary of what you eat and do, what treatments you use, and how you feel each and every day.  Study it.  Learn from it.  Change course, if you need to, thoughtfully and with with a sense of agency.  You can do this.