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Cancer as a Journey, Not a Battle: Cancer Narratives and Success Stories

Updated: Mar 6


"Cancer as a Journey, Not a Battle: Cancer Narratives and Success Stories”


I woke up one day at 3:00 AM with just one question in my head - should we really be calling cancer a “battle” to be fought? This is a popular metaphor in our society. Is this metaphor helpful? What does it mean when cancer is a “battle”?


While I have had family and friends diagnosed with cancer in the past, I have never personally been diagnosed. I am not claiming to be in your shoes or know what it is like - but instead give my thoughts below, based on my experience with family, friends, and patients.


This is a popular metaphor that many authors have written about and studied. This idea that people with cancer are under attack and need to fight and attack back with everything possible to win. While this metaphor may be helpful for some people, for others it may set people up to think that they need to do extreme, aggressive, or violent things to their body to achieve “victory”.


Oftentimes patients with cancer may have every possible treatment coming their way. Life is precious and there is no question about that. We need to preserve life the best we can. However, there’s a tendency for treatments to become more and more extreme as the stakes go higher. This seems to make sense on the surface. Why wouldn’t we consider every possible treatment? Why wouldn’t we do everything we can?


To be clear - this is not saying there are right or wrong words a person should use when they are talking about their own personal experience - people should be comfortable speaking how they need to express themselves and what they are going through. Where we get into trouble is when people on the outside comment on the nature of someone’s situation. For example, one patient has described the metaphor as the following:

“I think cancer-speak can be quite negatively loaded: the brave, fighter, warrior and survivor standard descriptors put an awful lot of pressure on the newly diagnosed.”


This metaphor may lead people to seek out more and more aggressive “weapons” to win the battle. Everyone has heard stories about people with late stage cancer living through it, right? In fact, it is well documented in research that some people somehow do live for years or even decades with late stage cancer. How is this possible? What is it they are doing? What is the secret?


Should Cancer Treatments Be Extraordinary?

Are more extreme or creative therapies justified based on what we know? Should we always be out-of-the-box thinkers when it comes to cancer? Yes and no. While data suggests many therapies have the potential for benefit, there seems to be an ongoing tendency in the field of cancer for some claims in the media to become exaggerated. There are five main challenges with online claims in success stories:


  1. Side effects and interactions are often not reported by the media when success stories are discussed. When discussing therapies for cancer there’s a tendency for one important detail to get missed - side effects. Those with cancer tend to have more sensitive systems due to the strain and stress that already exists on the body. This can make side effects more common. As more natural therapies and other treatments get added, the risk of both side effects and interactions between therapies increases. On the contrary, other natural therapies can be used to help reduce side effects. This is  one of the main goals of naturopathic support for cancer. For example, magnesium has been shown in research to help prevent damage to the kidneys in those taking certain types of chemotherapy. If side effects can be prevented then patients can continue on with their conventional treatments at the optimal doses without having to pause on therapy or have a dose reduction.

  2. Media reports often focus on just one treatment. Usually there are countless factors that can affect a person’s prognosis (also known as longevity or outlook), not just one treatment or therapy that leads to one person’s success story. Prognosis varies from person to person based on how their body is built and how resistant their immune system is to cancer. Some people have very strong immunities that can help kill off cancer cells, while others do not. Some of the other factors include genetics, gender, cancer characteristics, age, and where the cancer is located. Many patients are often undergoing several treatments at once - oncologist therapies, natural supplements, and dietary and lifestyle changes. It quickly becomes difficult to determine which factor or treatment led to one person’s success story and not the other. Research has documented hundreds of factors that can impact a person's prognosis. Oftentimes success stories do not mention many of these factors.

  3. The media often reports success stories that follow patients over a couple years, but rarely report on how a patient does on a long term, ongoing basis (>5 years). Most media stories tend to equate short term success with long term success. In other words, someone may appear cancer-free for several months, but dealing with cancer recurrences may remain a significant challenge in the long term as well.

  4. Cancer is extremely complex and rarely straightforward. Even well documented cases of cancer success stories are difficult to interpret. We often do not understand cases where a patient with an aggressive late stage cancer who would normally see a prognosis in months ends up living 5, 10, or more years. This happens in about 1 in 100 late stage pancreatic cancer patients for example. Cancer is often described as random or chaotic. This is because it is extremely complex and by nature it adapts and replicates very randomly and unpredictably. This makes it hard to determine the outcome in some patients, regardless of what treatments are being done and what the average prognosis is for that stage and cancer type.

  5. Testimonies and reviews on therapies often only come from patients with success stories. It’s not often that people hear about a testimony regarding a treatment from a person who tried a therapy that did not work. This tends to make the information available on the internet biased at times. In fact, some of the most objectively harmful natural therapies have extremely good reviews and testimonials despite their potential for harm and consistent reports of serious adverse effects. Some natural therapies have a consistent history of use with demonstrated safety while others have been found to be damaging - it varies greatly from therapy to therapy and between different contexts.



What Approach Should We Take?

All this being said - there are treatments and therapies we understand with reasonable confidence and other things we do not. For example, we know fairly well that immunotherapy is surprisingly effective for melanoma. Today those with late stage melanoma live nearly ten times longer from the time of diagnosis than in the past. As for natural supportive therapies, we can also say reasonably confidently that mistletoe injections are likely helpful because studies have found most patients using mistletoe have better quality of life, less side effects and greater longevity - you can read more here.


The way we decipher what works and what does not is through research studies. This is because in the past both conventional medicine and natural medicine has gotten itself into trouble experimenting without knowing if a treatment is helpful.


Do We Really Know what Works for Cancer?

Scientists have traveled across the world to discover and screen several hundred thousand compounds for anti cancer activity.[1] This includes plants, ocean life, and compounds from bacteria. We would still be left with trying to decide which of the many hundreds of thousands of potential anti cancer treatments to start with patients if we did not have research like this.


Finding helpful cancer treatments can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Out of the hundreds of thousands of treatments screened worldwide, no more than a couple hundred have been found to be effective in humans. In other words, the probability of any one substance having strong enough anti-cancer activity to be meaningfully helpful has historically been around 1 in 3000 or less - as a rough estimate.


Research aims to take an objective unbiased view. Rather than only looking at patients who had a good experience it incorporates those with a bad experience as well. Both the successful stories and unsuccessful stories. If 1 out of 200 people improved and the rest were worse off, then this treatment likely isn’t helpful overall.


Do Oncologists Use Natural Therapies?

Believe it or not, many of the compounds screened for anti-cancer activity were plants, and oncologists still use versions of them today. Chemotherapies such as paclitaxel (pacific yew tree) and vincristine (periwinkle) were originally extracted from plants.


Fears Around Chemotherapy and Radiation

The other part of the “battle” metaphor is that it may cause unnecessary fear - that the treatments a person is about to undergo are weapons “made to kill everything” and that it is extremely toxic. While there is some truth to that regarding some treatments, there’s also many cancer treatments that do not fall into that category - treatments that people can tolerate well and have minimal side effects. Technically chemotherapy primarily targets and kills fast-growing cancer cells of the body. Healthy cells may be affected as well, but to a lesser extent. The toxicity levels vary widely from treatment to treatment. Usually less advanced cancers can be treated with less-toxic and less-invasive therapies. Oftentimes there are also many natural therapies that can be considered alongside and have been found in research to help reduce side effects of certain conventional treatments.


The Feeling You’re Not Doing Enough

It’s common to feel that you are not doing enough. That there must be more that can be done. That the search should continue. Again, our society tends to tell you that you need to fight hard enough to beat it. There can be a pressure from our culture that puts the responsibility on the person rather than the cancer itself.


The intention is not to crush hope with the next few statements - many people with cancer live long healthy lives and I believe that there is always some hope for everyone. The challenge is cancer has a very random component. Someone can do everything correct and follow all the rules and still be diagnosed with cancer. The same applies to a person’s prognosis. Doing the right things can help a lot, but it doesn’t always make the difference that is needed for sustained remission. Cancer is unfair and does not seem to play by the rules. One treatment that works in one person might not work in the other. One treatment that works for one type of cancer often won’t necessarily for other types of cancer.


This is all a little tough to explain - so bare with me if you can. I’ll continue to elaborate more on these thoughts below.


Why Do We Need to Understand the Complexity of Cancer?


By understanding the complexity of cancer it can help some individuals realize that there will be parts of the journey that are not controllable. It can be freeing to modify and change what can be done and leave it at that.


My hope is that patients don’t feel pressure from society to be constantly searching, fighting and trying everything, regardless of the safety and effectiveness. This isn’t saying to give up on your search, it’s about using a balanced approach and taking a holistic view of the body. It’s about using the support of qualified health professionals around you to help empower you with the information you need to make decisions. There are no wrong questions. Ask them - what are the benefits of this therapy? What are the risks?


There can be a lot of ideas floating on the internet, from friends or family - usually it’s all well meaning and good intentions. However, know that it is okay to take a step back and say “no”, or “I’ll look into that”. They want to help, that’s natural. I recommend running the ideas by a health professional first.


To build on this further, some research suggests there tends to be a mentality of overtreatment in our society, no matter the cost - financially and physically.[2] As much as my patients value the therapies and recommendations I offer them, they equally value when I say “no, I don’t think that is a great idea based on my experience and available information”. I have seen firsthand and from my colleagues that some of the most extreme therapies do not play out well. On the contrary, there are many add-on or adjunctive therapies that have been well studied and shown to provide benefit more reliably, such as mistletoe therapy. I look at both the positive and negative information available regarding natural therapies and put it all together so that you can have both sides of the story before making a decision.


What’s the Best Approach?

At our clinic we create a tailored plan that utilizes the safest possible therapies we can find with the best likelihood of providing benefit based on our scientific understanding and experience. The best results we see are usually with an integrative plan that uses the best of both worlds - natural therapies alongside conventional treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Before patients consider more extreme therapies, we recommend options that have been found in research to be safe in conjunction with therapies used by the medical community. We aim for an open non-judgemental environment. You are welcome to agree or disagree, and we will work alongside you regardless of what choices you make.


Rather than trying to implement all therapies at once, we often first stick with 5-10 key recommendations for each patient. This helps to reduce risk of interactions and side effects and tends to be less overwhelming for patients. We then dynamically adjust the plan as we go by adding or removing recommendations as circumstances often change and various therapies work better in specific contexts.


I often run a panel of blood tests that are tailored according to our goals. A primary goal for those with weakened immunity due to chemotherapy is to prevent infections. In this scenario we can look at testing nutrients that are commonly deficient and can impact the immune system.


If you’re looking for an objective naturopath who listens well and gives their honest view on therapies - then reach out to our clinic. We use thousands of studies and compare years of patient cases, so that we can choose the best therapies we can find, so that you don’t have to. Cancer can be complex and overwhelming - we aim to bring clarity and confidence to patients – to empower them with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions.


References

[1] Asma ST, Acaroz U, Imre K, Morar A, Shah SRA, Hussain SZ, Arslan-Acaroz D, Demirbas H, Hajrulai-Musliu Z, Istanbullugil FR, Soleimanzadeh A, Morozov D, Zhu K, Herman V, Ayad A, Athanassiou C, Ince S. Natural Products/Bioactive Compounds as a Source of Anticancer Drugs. Cancers (Basel). 2022 Dec 15;14(24):6203. doi: 10.3390/cancers14246203. PMID: 36551687; PMCID: PMC9777303.

[2] Bhatt JR, Klotz L. Overtreatment in cancer - is it a problem? Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2016;17(1):1-5. doi: 10.1517/14656566.2016.1115481. Epub 2016 Jan 20. PMID: 26789721.

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