Herbal Healing vs. High Tech Cancer Treatments; What is Naturopathic Medicine?

By Courtney Marmon

“You have cancer.” Hearing such a diagnosis might be one of the most frightening experiences of your life. Immediately a rush of thoughts ranging from surgery to chemotherapy, from death to telling your loved ones race through your mind. After hearing the news, a surge of emotions rushes through your body, everything from fear to hope and all else in between. Your main concern: getting well again, by any means necessary. Do you seek treatment from a hospital, or ordinary herbal remedies? Increasingly, Americans are choosing the alternative to a hospital – all-natural medicines.

Naturopathic or all-natural medicine, which uses acupuncture, herbal remedies, massages, breathing techniques, and dietary supplements as medicine, is becoming popular amongst cancer patients as part of their treatment. “Seven out of 10 adult cancer patients in Western Washington are using alternative therapies – especially those patients who are female and college-educated, and most commonly the use of dietary supplements,” according to a study conducted in 2002 by The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, as reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Carol Smith. The trend for using drugs that are not artificially created is global. In Australia it has been “estimated that the [alternative medicine] industry was worth about $1 billion a year – $620 million on alternative medicines, and $309 million on alternative practitioners,” said a study conducted by Associate Professor Alastair MacLennan of Adelaide University.

Essiac Tea; a tea comprised of several different herbs that has been used as an alternative cancer treatment.

But just what does ‘alternative’ or ‘all-natural’ medicine mean? According to the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians, naturopathic medicine “encourages the self-healing process… and blends centuries-old knowledge of natural therapies with current advances in the understanding of health and human systems.” This is the motto under which Dr. Ken Weizer runs his practice. Weizer, a naturopathic doctor, uses naturopathic medicine to treat cancer patients. He works at Providence Hospital in Portland, Oregon, where he is on the integrative medical team. Weizer incorporates all-natural treatments to complement his patients’ other, more traditional hospital treatments. Weizer said that his patients are just trying to survive and to feel well throughout the treatment process, and that they are willing do whatever it takes beat cancer. “They are looking to recover better. Cancer is stressful, and they are looking for gentile treatments,” he said.

One of Weizer’s patients who is looking to “recover better” is a young woman, who is 35 years old, married, has children, and has breast cancer. “She is doing a lot of treatment to try and survive,” Weizer said. She is undergoing chemotherapy, has had surgery, and has even tried Receptin, a newly developed genetic therapy treatment used specifically for breast cancer patients. While using these treatments, she began having trouble eating and sleeping, became exhausted, was often nauseous and began losing weight. “It’s hard to be a human being, let alone a mom or a wife, when you’re just trying to keep your head above water,” Weizer said. “We reviewed what was happening with her treatments and put her on a diet of supplements that can help her get more nutrition, help her get some sleep and lets her digest her food better and deal with the nausea…We focused on some very simply things, diet exercise and stress reduction, and a rational use of a few supplements, and she started doing a little better. Her weight stabilized.” Weizer described the importance of using both naturopathic medicine and traditional hospital treatments in order to find the best way to heal. “Walking with her in simple and gentle ways can make a difference [to the entire treatment process],” said Weizer.

But, what exactly are the differences between all-natural medicine and traditional medicine? Weizer described them as two separate categories, practical and philosophical. Practically, Weizer said, “It’s a different education. [For a naturopathic doctor] there is generally no residency.” He continued, “In terms of medical school, the first two years are pretty much identical to medical doctor training.” He said that the last two years are where training NDs learn about therapeutics, such as nutritional therapies, about herbal supplements, homeopathic remedies, and massage techniques. “The therapies are very different,” he said.

Weizer said the difference between traditional and naturopathic medicine lies in the target of the drugs themselves. “Mainstream medicine is more geared toward killing the disease.” He continued, “I’m looking to treat the individual in mind, body, and spirit.”

Weizer advocates for the use of all medicines for cancer treatment, not just those of the all-natural variety. “When you get cancer being alive is really good. Whatever you can do to support that is good,” he said. Weizer discussed that all-natural supplements and herbal remedies are just as ‘natural’ as chemotherapy. “Most chemos [chemotherapy treatments] are made from plants. They are just herbal medicine,” said Weizer.

Don Helfgott, the owner of Inspiration Software of Beaverton, Oregon, so strongly supports the practice of naturopathic medicine, that in 2003 he donated enough money to the National College of Natural Medicine to found the Helfgott Research Institute. The mission behind the Institute is to discover alternative disease treatments using all-natural products. Currently, researchers at Helfgott are working on discovering alternative, all-natural cancer treatments. According to Helfgott’s 2010 Research Brochure, researchers are “investigating immune-enhancing botanicals and therapies [and the] effects of nutritional and mind-body therapies in relation to cancer.” Their current work surrounds “the effect of vegetables on estrogen metabolism and the use of relaxation and visualization therapy for breast cancer patients.”

Weizer, who also works as an adjunct professor at the National College of Natural Medicine, said he couldn’t comment on the research being done at Helfgott. However, he said in relation to oncology, “What I tell patients is, ‘That lump or bump is oncology. They [the traditional medical doctors] are going to put something in your body to try and kill that. I’m treating you in mind, body and spirit, while they’re treating that.’”

Regardless of which doctor is treating what, the Food and Drug Administration is supposed to regulate every drug treatment on the market, to make sure that the medicines are actually treating the patient the way the doctor wants it to. In December 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a study called “Guidance for Industry on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Products and Their Regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.” This document detailed FDA’s concerns about all-natural medicines. After the section entitled “What FDA Authority Might Apply to CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) Products?” when specifically referencing “Drug/New Drug” the document states, “A detailed discussion of the Act’s drug provisions is beyond the scope of this guidance document.”

Cartoon illustrating a lack of FDA oversight.

Currently there are no federal regulations in place for all-natural medicines that are made from vitamins, minerals, or foods; anyone who wishes to use vitamins, minerals or foods as a treatment method for a disease is free to do so. But, Weizer warns those who are new to using all-natural supplements. He says that the FDA’s regulations are unclear and undefined. “It’s like the wild west. There really is no oversight,” he said.

This lack of oversight has validated some of the skeptics’ concerns about naturopathic medicine. UK-Skeptics, an English-based group that challenges the use of all-natural medicine, says, “Just because something is natural does NOT mean that it is harmless,” according to their website. The group cites “dubious safety,” “interference with prescribed drugs,” and “untargeted response” as three of several concerns they have with all-natural medicine. The group does not doubt that all-natural products, like teas or herbal remedies such as dandelion root, can be effective, but UK Skeptics do say on their website that “The main problems [with all-natural medicines] are that there is very little regulation of this highly profitable industry, and the fact that consumers are under the false impression that these ‘remedies’ are intrinsically harmless.” The Skeptics are concerned that the effects of these drugs may be counterintuitive to getting well, that all-natural remedies may do more harm to the body than healing.

But the question then becomes, how effective are all-natural medicines during cancer treatment?  Weizer said that he talks to his patients about their diet, their time, and their stress level; by creating a rational plan about their treatment, that he can see a positive effect in his patients. “Often times they [the patients] might come in with a bag of medicines, and are spending a lot of time with pills that might be harmful to them,” Weizer said. When used properly, medicines of any variety are able to have an effect on the body; it’s just a matter of proper consultation and finding the best treatment for the patient’s unique condition to put them on the road to recovery.

The differences between all-natural treatments and “traditional hospital” treatments are not black and white, because they are typically used in conjunction with one another to arrive at the end result of being well again. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America illustrate this message when it describes naturopathic treatment for breast cancer. “In many types of breast cancer, the hormone estrogen causes breast tumors to grow. Your naturopathic clinician may recommend certain naturopathic therapies that decrease the amount of estrogen in the body by increasing the metabolism and clearance of this hormone,” according to their website. The idea here is that treatments, whether they’ve been artificially created in a lab or are simply herbal tea remedies, are meant to heal the patient in the best way possible. Upon hearing a cancer diagnosis, after the flood gates open and thoughts of life and death become overwhelming, the question then becomes, “How can I get better?” Cancer patients are discovering their options for getting well are traditional hospital treatment, all-natural medicines, or a combination of the two. “Natural is just a word,” according to Weizer, but naturopathic cancer treatments and their effectiveness when combined with traditional hospital treatments are observable facts.


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