Ask-the-Expert Online Conference
The Ask-the-Expert Online Conference called Complementary and Holistic Treatments featured Daniel Benor, M.D., Patricia Johnson, M.D., and Marisa Weiss, M.D. answering your questions about what complementary and holistic treatments are, how to find reliable practitioners, and which might be the best treatments for you.
Editor's Note: This conference took place in October 2002.
Questions from this conference
- Has cancer been cured by naturopathy?
- Spirituality a requirement for affirmation?
- Can chiropractic treatment help breast cancer?
- Holistic approach to prevent breast cancer?
- Be cautious seeking complementary treatment?
- Does smoking interfere with holistic treatment?
- Impact of body cleansing on breast cancer?
- Holistic treatments for hot flashes?
- Detoxification products okay during chemo?
- Holistic approach more than a quick fix?
- Best holistic method for breast cancer?
- Holistic approach helps side effects?
- Mind-over-matter and hypnotic healing?
- Holistic lifestyle lowers breast cancer risk?
- Risky to choose complementary over chemo?
- Research to show acupuncture works?
- Okay to get massage during chemo?
- Question from Edith: We know that conventional medicine does not have a cure for cancer yet, but has anyone ever heard of a naturopath who actually cured a patient of breast cancer?
- Answers - Dan Benor I've not known of a naturopath doing that, but I've heard rare reports of faith healers doing that. I've also worked with people who may have helped to cure themselves, or at least prolong their own survival beyond what doctors expected. These people were in Dr. David Spiegel's group. They were in the group for support, and after two years, Dr. Spiegel was quite surprised that a number of them had survived longer than expected.
Marisa Weiss, M.D.
Dr. Spiegel's randomized study was looking at the power of support groups for women with metastatic disease. Most of these women received conventional medical treatment and also took part in regular support groups.
Stories of people achieving complete cures entirely from alternative methods of healing are relatively rare. When you hear of such a story, it's important to listen carefully to learn whatever you can that might be useful and be aware that such claims may be unproven. The presence, extent, and nature of the cancer or response to treatment may not have been objectively established. It's also important to realize that everyone is unique—and that people are looking for healing that goes beyond the cancer itself.
For example, after treatment is over, the fear of breast cancer recurrence can really take over and interfere with your quality of life. In such a situation, there is a great opportunity for healing—healing in this case meaning gaining control over this gripping fear and anxiety.
There are specific techniques for self-healing that are excellent for taming anxiety and stress. One of them, which I've posted on my web site at www.wholistichealingresearch.com, I've called "Whee." This is in the spectrum of acupressure for self-healing. People will touch various acupressure points on their bodies while reciting an affirmation. This is also helpful for dealing with pain.
An affirmation is a statement of a problem followed by a statement that is strongly positive. An example would be: "Even though I have this pain, I love and accept myself wholly and completely, and I know that God loves me wholly and completely, too."
- Patricia Johnson In my practice, I have found the fear of recurrence to be very prominent for the first several years after treatment. I have also found that reassuring women that this fear is normal is often helpful. I find that small support groups are extremely helpful in allaying this anxiety. Women who have the opportunity to speak with other women who are long-term survivors find the experience very reassuring.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Expressing your fears and concerns to someone you trust is very therapeutic. Holding it in creates a lot of internal pressure and chaos. Getting answers to your questions can also make a big difference, as can meditation, imagery, and visualization, among others.
- Dan Benor Spiritual awareness and healing can also help in a number of ways. The 'laying on of hands' (a therapeutic method of touching), Reiki, and other forms of healing can directly alleviate symptoms of pain and anxiety. They can also open the person receiving the healing to greater spiritual awareness. This can be helpful on many levels.
- Question from Candlelight: Dr. Benor, looking at the affirmation you cited, do you believe that organized spirituality (belief in a supreme being) is a requirement for this sort of approach?
- Answers - Dan Benor When I see in the press that some people talk of faith healing as an example of spiritual healing, I become uncomfortable. Research shows that many animals, and even plants can respond to healing, so it's clear that faith in a supreme being isn't a requirement. But a person of faith may find it very comforting to experience the healing within that context. The context itself may add power to the healing for that person.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. For people of faith, or people who are within a community that share a strong spiritual bond, great power can be had by just connecting within the community. It could be a church, a bird-watching group, or a meditation circle. It can take many forms.
- Dan Benor People have asked me about my religious belief and practice. I've come to feel that I belong to a church of personal spirituality. So I can resonate, Marisa, with what you've said about that fact that a person could belong to a bird-watching group, because nature speaks very strongly of spiritual awareness.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Being aware that there is power beyond yourself may be a key ingredient for many of the mystical powers.
- Question from Mystic: Has chiropractic treatment been used to help prevent breast cancer?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson I don't know if chiropractic manipulation has been used as a preventive strategy for breast cancer. I do think that chiropractors are often good at teaching women how to do self-massage, including lymphatic massage, which I find very helpful for breast health.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. You may experience aches and pains from breast cancer itself, or from the treatment of breast cancer. Many chiropractors first try to help figure out the cause of the pain before initiating any manipulation. They need to know that it is safe to apply firm pressure to a particular part of the body. If you have breast cancer that has spread to the bone, that bone may be weakened. In such a situation, chiropractic manipulation would not be advisable. It is always important to have good communication among all of the healers and practitioners you consult with, so that these kinds of problems can be managed in the most effective and safe way.
- Dan Benor I agree. What we're talking about is called 'integrated' or 'integrative' care, where complementary and conventional therapists work together. This is the best of both worlds.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. You may need to ask your doctors and healers to pick up the phone and call each other if you think this kind of communication is not in place.
- Question from Terra: Is there a holistic approach being used to help prevent breast cancer, and, if so, what is it?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson The holistic approach to preventing breast cancer is the same holistic approach to living a healthy life. It includes regular exercise, stress reduction, a healthy diet, and management of one's emotional well-being. Often, nutritional supplements may also be appropriate. There are other variables that we feel may affect breast cancer risk, including avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, quitting smoking, evaluating one's family history of breast cancer and overall lifetime estrogen exposure. These may be important for preventing not only breast cancer, but other diseases as well.
- Dan Benor Also, spiritual affiliation and practice have been shown in hundreds of studies to be good for your health.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. What about the power of prayer, specifically?
- Dan Benor We're just beginning to appreciate that prayer is a potent influence for healing. Studies published in the past dozen years in medical journals appear to confirm this. There are also studies in parapsychology and nursing journals that demonstrate the effects of prayer or meditation on healing, sometimes from great distances.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. I'm fascinated by how much variability there is among people and their practice of prayer. For some, it is very private and meditative; for others it may be public, within a defined spiritual group, where it may be their mechanism of connecting to other people, like chanting. There are so many ways to practice a spiritual approach.
- Question from CRV: Unfortunately, some unqualified individuals have preyed on breast cancer patients' fear and pain. When seeking complementary treatment, what should we be looking for— or looking out for?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson When we are looking for complementary treatment we need to find the method that resonates most deeply for ourselves. One person may get great benefit from nutritional approaches, while another person may benefit more from exercise or practices such as meditation. We should look for whatever complementary approaches most suit our own personalities. We should also seek people with whom we feel comfortable. Don't be afraid to ask about practitioners' past experiences, and don't be afraid to contact other patients who have used the practitioner you are considering.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Don't make fast decisions about any of your medical care, either conventional or complementary. Ask questions. Listen carefully to the answers, and reflect on them together with people you trust. You may decide to initiate a limited relationship with someone in the beginning, a specific number of visits, for example. If, at the end of that trial period, the treatment has helped you significantly, that's encouragement to keep going. If it hasn't been helpful, share your concern with that practitioner, try to establish realistic expectations, and pick another point to re-evaluate.
- Dan Benor It's also helpful when visiting practitioners—especially on the first visit—to have someone you trust accompany you, because you may not hear or remember everything that's been said.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Being a patient and dealing with breast cancer can feel like a full-time job, or it can make you feel like you're going back to school again. You may be able to shift your thinking from being overwhelmed to feeling that you have the chance to learn something new that might be exciting, interesting, and helpful. I am always amazed by the power each of us has over the perspective we choose to take on a situation. Shifting from a doom-and-gloom perspective to something more comfortable may be within your reach.
- Dan Benor When I started working with people who have serious illnesses, I was very surprised at how often they felt blessed to have had the illness, because it stopped them from pursuing the path they'd been on. They found that the time for reflection given to them by their illness was enormously healing. They found new perspectives, new meaning in life, and ways of letting go of old hurts and stressors that may have contributed to their illness.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Do you have any practical suggestions for people who are interested in identifying the stressors in their lives and formulating a plan to eliminate or modify them?
The simplest way is to pretend that your body can speak, and ask it what it might be saying with any given symptom. Often, people will come up with very direct answers such as, "This pain in my neck is really my boss," or "I am bellyaching a lot and that is why my stomach has been acting up." When we release stressors, our bodies can relax. So illness is sometimes a message from our inner self, because we weren't paying attention before.
When we talk about people developing an illness through stress, people sometimes feel that we're blaming them. This is really not what we're doing. We're saying that stress makes it harder for the body to deal with infections or with cells that might be multiplying too rapidly.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Memory, concentration, and sleep are particularly vulnerable to stress.
So when we can help our bodies by removing the stress, then our bodies can do their jobs much more easily.
I actually suggest that people sit down, put a second chair in front of them, and pretend that they're talking to their symptoms. I then suggest they change chairs and talk as though they're giving words to the symptoms. Sometimes it's very surprising that the symptoms actually are speaking of healing. These might even be feelings from many years ago that we had to bury when we didn't feel competent to deal with them. When we swallow feelings, they fester, and can lead to the development of symptoms.
- Patricia Johnson I think the most practical way to determine what stressors might be causing symptoms is that frequently, during a stressful experience, or immediately afterward, symptoms will be worse. So watch the pattern of your discomfort to see if you can determine which life situation is throwing you out of balance.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. At least as important as identifying what causes you stress is trying to figure out what gives you joy, pleasure, fun, and a sense of spontaneity. This is very important for you to know, because you want to learn new ways to bring joy into your life.
- Question from Rachel: I know that cigarette smoking is harmful in many ways, but would it interfere with holistic approaches to treatment?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson I don't know of many holistic treatments that would be affected by cigarette smoking. Some treatments may not be as effective in smokers as in non-smokers. I do feel that smoking and feeling guilty about it probably make the effects of smoking more harmful to the body. Therefore, coming to terms with whether or not you're a smoker, and loving yourself regardless of the smoking issue, is extremely important. Nutritional supplements are frequently not as helpful in smokers, or smokers may need larger dosages of certain supplements, in order to have the same effect.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. If you are a smoker and you feel you might be ready to stop, the most effective way to do it is with a combination of mindful measures and possibly medication. The power of the mind shouldn't be underestimated. It's very difficult to stop smoking without tapping into the power of your will.
- Dan Benor Many of the treatments I recommend can help people stop smoking. The self-healing acupressure techniques are specifically helpful with cravings, not just for cigarettes, but for alcohol and drugs as well.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. How about cravings for chocolate chip ice cream?
- Dan Benor That, too!
- Question from Edith: What impact does body cleansing with castor oil and other products have on breast cancer patients?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson Detoxification practices are helpful for many chronic illnesses, including breast cancer. Due to our diet and our environment, most people carry toxins. Cleansing the body through a healthy diet, as well as including detoxification practices, can be beneficial. Occasional juice fasting, taking products to help pull toxins from the body, drinking plenty of water, and regular aerobic exercise, are all methods that help with detoxification. Also, keeping your liver healthy can be extremely helpful in preventing the build-up of toxins. The herb called 'milk thistle' may help boost the liver's ability to detoxify the body.
- Dan Benor There have been studies in Germany of what they call 'geopathic stress.' They find that certain areas in a house, or on a piece of land, can be stressful for people who spend a lot of time there. There are people who 'dowse' in order to identify these areas. Dowsers use a pendulum, or what they call a divining rod, which helps them use their intuition to identify a healthy or unhealthy place to spend time in. They have found some houses, for instance, where up to 10 people in succession developed cancer.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Is it unrelated to family history?
- Dan Benor That wasn't evaluated, so it could be a compounding factor.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. What about Feng Shui? It's a system of thinking about the placement of elements—objects , light, air, movement, placement of the building, and how these things can affect your well-being.
- Patricia Johnson It's basically a system of energy flow. In Chinese philosophy, we are energetic beings in connection with not only the earth, but also the universe. The way in which energy flows around us can certainly affect our well-being.
- Question from Nelly: Are there any good holistic treatments for hot flashes?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson Hot flashes can be very difficult to treat, not only in breast cancer patients, but also in menopausal women in general. The most commonly recommended supplements include Vitamin E, up to 1,000 mg a day, and an herb called Black Cohosh, both of which may be helpful for many women. The most helpful supplement that I have found is the simple addition to the diet of soy. Soy in a natural state, such as soymilk, or soy found in tofu, seem to be more helpful than soy found in capsule form at the health food stores. Frequently, one or two glasses of soymilk per day can be extremely helpful in decreasing hot flashes.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. The safety of using plant-like estrogens, such as those found in soy, remains somewhat controversial, if you have had a hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. The amount and kind of soy that you want to take is something that should be discussed with your physician or nutritionist.
- Patricia Johnson I agree. Using soy as a whole product, such as soymilk, includes the entire plant, which is thought to be safer, especially in the setting of breast cancer, than the concentrated capsule form.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. I agree completely. It doesn't make sense to eat an unhealthy diet and try to make it healthier by adding supplements. A diagnosis of breast cancer can offer a good opportunity to look at the quality of the food you're eating and to try to figure out how to make your diet healthier. Soy sources of protein like tofu are probably a much healthier source of protein than a fat, juicy steak. Most soy products have no cholesterol and very little fat.
- Dan Benor Other holistic approaches that can help with hot flashes include imagery, meditation, and relaxation, which can all be helpful in dealing with many pains, discomforts, and hormonal changes. When the body is more relaxed, we handle stress better both emotionally and physically.
- Question from Holly: Is it advisable to use detoxification products, such as milk thistle, while undergoing chemotherapy?
Marisa Weiss, M.D.
The interaction between plant substances and chemotherapy (some chemotherapies come from plants, in fact) may be very specific to the kind of plant substance, as well as the type of chemotherapy you may be receiving. For example, most doctors tell you to avoid using antioxidants during Adriamycin chemotherapy, as well as during radiation. Ephedra is considered inadvisable in general, as well as during treatment. Anything that could increase the likelihood of bleeding should obviously be avoided. For example, aspirin, which is a plant derivative, should not be used close to the time of surgery.
Bring your list of supplements to the doctor who is giving you chemotherapy to make sure that what you are taking is helpful and not harmful.
- Question from Susan: I can lower my blood pressure and decrease my pulse rate with meditation, and it is a quick fix. Is the holistic approach more than a quick fix?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson The holistic approach is not a quick fix, it's a way of life. When you live a holistic life, all aspects of your life are hopefully brought into balance.
- Question from Brenda: Which holistic method would you say is the safest and most effective in the treatment of breast cancer—or would a combination of methods be the best?
I feel the holistic method that is most helpful for any individual is the method that will help bring that person's life into balance. If that means opening to a more spiritual approach, or adding exercise in order to move the body in a more regular way, or changing the diet, all of these may be incorporated into the holistic approach.
It's different for different people. Whichever aspect is most needed for a person generally becomes obvious. After that area of the life is more balanced, frequently another area will become apparent and need to be balanced. Each person's life needs to be evaluated in order to find a place to start on the path toward healing.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. It sounds like it really is an ongoing, dynamic process that you create and sustain every day. It probably happens in steps, and there's a lot of learning all along the way for what needs to be addressed and how to do it. It is a process of discovery, too. Try not to be critical of yourself if you feel you are not always making progress in identifying and making lifestyle and spiritual changes. It takes a lot of learning, moving forward, standing still, and sometimes losing some ground along the way.
- Dan Benor Part of this question was, "What is the safest modality?" Spiritual healing—as in Reiki, therapeutic touch, or prayer—is simply one of the safest. In general, there tend to be far fewer and far less dangerous side effects with complementary therapies.
- Question from Griz: I have been diagnosed with breast cancer, which has metastasized to the liver. I was taking Taxotere with Xeloda, but after not being able to tolerate Xeloda, am only on Taxotere. Can you recommend any other treatment?
- Answers - Marisa Weiss, M.D. There are so many medications available today that can be used alone or in combination. Working closely with your doctor, you can first find out if your current regimen is working for you, and if a switch needs to be made, to carefully discuss all the options available to you. The good news is that more and more new options are becoming available each day, and by combining the best of what's available from the outside world and what you can make available to yourself from your internal world, may prove to be the most healing and therapeutic treatment plan for you.
- Dan Benor Healing and prayer have been known to make the side effects of many medications, including chemotherapy, less intense. I've talked with a number of nurses, and have found that patients who receive some kind of healing therapy along with their chemotherapy have far less severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, and other side effects. People can also pray over their medications with the same positive effects.
- Question from Susan: Would you say that this kind of healing is 'mind over matter'—almost a hypnotic event?
You could call it 'mind over matter,' but it's not hypnotic; it's completely separate, because babies and mice and bacteria and plants can respond to healing.
Hypnosis, on the other hand, can activate the enormous latent potentials that we all have. It's estimated that our conscious mind represents only about five percent of our brain/mind potential. Hypnosis is excellent for pain. It can help with relaxation, sleep, and the exploration of buried emotional stresses that might be contributing to dis-ease, and disease. It is often extremely helpful and supportive to have a therapist or healer or doctor (isn't it a shame that we separate these?) to shepherd us through the course of illness and treatment.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. This includes guiding you and taking care of you as you pursue the mindful measures that we've discussed, particularly when you are tapping into old memories or experiences that may be difficult and painful. Doing this on your own, without help, can be scary and make you feel more isolated from other people.
- Question from Susan: Can you say that women who follow a holistic lifestyle have fewer cases of breast cancer than those who do not? Are studies being done?
- Answers - Marisa Weiss, M.D. This is a very important question, and it is one that is difficult to study carefully in large groups of women. All of us certainly recognize that a holistic lifestyle is most likely to give you a greater sense of well-being. Whatever you can do to strengthen yourself physically and emotionally will put you in the best position possible to protect yourself from harmful changes. This may include changes like cancer.
- Question from Bob T: My mom has breast cancer, but says she doesn't want to 'poison' her body with chemotherapy. After her surgery she's going to do visualization and meditation instead. Is she putting her health at risk?
Marisa Weiss, M.D.
Every woman's situation is unique. The value of chemotherapy depends very much on her risk of recurrence. The higher her risk of recurrence, the greater the potential benefit from chemotherapy. If her doctor has recommended chemotherapy because she has a significant risk of recurrence, then it may not be advisable to give up on chemotherapy and instead seek out only complementary medicine. If her risk of recurrence is relatively low, your mother may not want to take chemotherapy just to lower her risk by a few percentage points.
Also, your mother doesn't necessarily have to make a choice between one type of treatment and another. Perhaps she may decide to use both chemotherapy and complementary medicine to her advantage. It may be useful for her to seek several opinions from medical oncologists—the kind of doctor that prescribes chemotherapy. This may help her fully understand these issues so she can feel comfortable with her decision.
- Dan Benor A counselor, a support group, or both might also be helpful in weighing all the options. Sometimes we feel that we're making a good decision but we haven't considered all the possibilities. So it's important not to rush. It's important also to realize that what feels right at a certain point may bear re-evaluation in the light of further knowledge.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. What's fascinating about being a person is that we really can change over time, and that our needs can evolve as well. Dr. Benor's suggestion that you start talking to yourself is very helpful; it can be a good way to keep in touch with how you are growing as a person as you move through your life.
- Question from Freida: My health insurance reimburses the cost of acupuncture. Does that mean it really works?
- Answers - Dan Benor There's excellent research to show that acupuncture is effective in dealing with the pain and nausea that's associated with chemotherapy. However, acupuncture offers far more than symptom management. When used by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist, it is a very complete and holistic form of treatment for the whole person.
- Patricia Johnson I feel that it is extremely helpful, but I'm not sure that insurance reimbursement has anything to do with that opinion.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. There are many wonderful therapies and remedies that insurance does not cover. This is a shame, because it means that not everyone gets the benefit of what's out there. One reason some insurance companies now pay for acupuncture is because advocates for acupuncture have presented compelling research results in a forceful way. Hopefully, other effective treatments that are not yet paid for by insurance will also become available in this way.
- Question from Novella: Is it okay to get a massage during chemotherapy?
- Answers - Patricia Johnson I don't see any problem with getting massage during chemotherapy. I feel massage promotes relaxation, and therefore could be extremely helpful in dealing with side effects.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. There are various ways of giving massage. A gentle form of massage in the area of your surgery is preferred. During chemotherapy, if you have any cuts, insect bites, incisions, or acne, it's important not to over-manipulate those areas because of concern about infection.
- Patricia Johnson I have taken care of many breast cancer patients over 25 years of practice, and I can say that I feel the cure rate has definitely increased. I feel very optimistic that we're making progress with this disease.
- Dan Benor There is a growing body of convincing research which suggests that holistic treatments, including faith and touch healing, can be effective for many problems and symptoms, so we can recommend these therapies with increasing confidence.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. For many breast cancer patients, the focus is often on how long you live, but it's also so important to focus on the moments along the way, and on how you're feeling right now, every day. I hope that the ideas and the guidance we've provided will help you recapture some of the pleasure and meaning of your life.