Big Guns and Gentle Healers: Combining Eastern and Western Remedies for Coping with Cancer

Talking with a friend some time ago, I told her I'd written a book that blends a review of international scientific literatures with personal narrative, sociological analyses with recipes. Despite knowing that the topic of this book is my son's experiences with cancer, she laughed. It amused me too. Recipes? However, I wanted to tell my son's story about combining the best of Eastern and Western medicines--including the research that's been done--in the hope that it would help people who have cancer themselves (one in three Americans at some time in their lives) and those who support them (probably most of us, sooner or later). The following discussion is based on that book, Double Vision: An East-West Collaboration for Coping with Cancer.

In 1991 my son, Drew, aged 21, was diagnosed with a rare aggressive, malignant head tumor (a chondrosarcoma bordering his brain and optic nerve). In an explosive moment we went from normal life and everyday troubles to a fast-moving, numbing medical conveyor belt, fraught with fear. I had often seen others going through this. As a medical sociologist, for fifteen years I observed, recorded and wrote about both doctors and patients navigating the health care system. I watched many people coping with a bad-diagnosis-day. But now I entered the medical field through a different door. Instead of following the doctor or extracting life stories from the ill, I sat on that far side of the room where patients and their families sit, lost in the strange words that surround and obscure unwelcome news.

Events passed from a first surgery to an unexpected second surgery, and intensive proton beam radiation. All this was accompanied from the start and mitigated by a variety of complementary treatments, culminating in a healthy conclusion for my son. I have chosen in this revised excerpt to concentrate on the Eastern and Western medical models of health and illness, making the point that while they may be philosophically at odds, they work well together in action to sooth and heal the mind and body.

Medical Models

It is generally supposed, in modern scientific medicine and often by the general public, that Eastern and Western medical world views are theoretically and conceptually at odds with each other. Too often, we tend to choose one or the other, believing in their incompatibility. And indeed they are ideologically antagonistic. For example:

  • Where Western medicine looks for the single cause and absolutes, Eastern medicine assumes multiple causes and ambiguity. It is not surprising, for example, that so-called fuzzy logic--"a theory of fuzzy sets, sets that calibrate vagueness"--though conceived in the United States, is still controversial here but embraced in Japan, indeed is contributing to its technological superiority. Western scientists argue that such a system challenges the scientific method and is too vague.
  • Where Western medicine's focus is on curing illness, Eastern medicine attempts to prevent it.
  • Where Western medicine defines knowledge hierarchically, with the doctor the knower and the patient the known--the former active, the latter passive--Eastern medicine centers on a partnership of knowers. In this partnership, each party has a different kind of knowledge and all the players are active participants. Patients become people responsible for making decisions about their treatment and recovery. Experts offer guidance and information, treatments and support, but ill people decide what they are willing or able to do to ease their situation. This is not a blame-the-victim message of total responsibility but rather a means to feel in control of one's own life-decisions instead of being a helpless victim of disease processes and the experts that tend to them.

This Western inequality between doctor and patient is powerfully summed up in Alan Bennett's play, The Madness of King George III about the medical miseries and ministrations to the king. In a stark scene, King George sits pitifully strapped into a chair, barefoot and disheveled, clothed in a tattered, stained nightdress, having been leeched, burned, purged and pierced. He musters a shred of strength to howl to one of his overbearing physicians: "I am the King of England." His doctor, grandly dressed, elegantly erect, booms with authority to King George and to the audience: "No sir. You are the patient."

  • Where Western medicine does battle against the enemies of disease with big guns, Eastern medicine seeks peace through balance. Not an invader, disease is a messenger from the body signalling for help.
  • Where Western medicine seeks proof and tangible evidence, striving for a practice based on experiments, validity, and controlled studies, Eastern medicine historically looks to clinical and historical experience; empirical knowledge passed down for thousands of years.
  • Where the West looks to parts of the body, the individual organ or cell, utilizing skills that zero in on the part, separating the mind from the body and forgetting about the spirit altogether, the East expands to the entire person with body, mind, and soul considered integrated parts of the whole organism. In Alexandra Marshall's novel, Gus in Bronze, Gus pleads with her Western doctors for such connections:

All I want, I can assure you, is confidence in your desire to heal me. And I mean heal not in its other definition 'to patch up,' but in its first definition, 'to make sound or whole,' because that's what I'm talking about. A whole person has a body and a soul, and that's its integrity. Now if you desire to keep me sound, you mustn't abuse my soul the way you do; you mustn't sacrifice my soul to salvage my body by patching it up.

An AIDS Quarterly segment on public television offered an obviously extreme but telling example of Western medicine in which a young man with AIDS is not only fragmented, like Gus, but his parts seem more important than his life. One doctor advocated continuing an experimental AIDS drug despite the patient's worsening condition on the medication. His reason: the blood work showed improvement. Luckily for the ill man, the principal investigator of the experiment discontinued the drug. In an argument with his colleague he pointed out the blood work didn't matter, the patient was dying. The first doctor reluctantly agreed to stop the experiment on this person and others. But he wasn't convinced. After all, as he kept repeating, the blood work looks so good.

I too, once assumed an unbridgeable distance between these paired understandings of health and illness, preferring the gentle arts of the East to the cutting-edge invasiveness of the West. Aesthetically and logically, Eastern methods of health and healing appeal to me more than the take-charge western model. The idea of a holistic approach to treatment, the shift from passive patient to active participant, and the ideal of prevention all attract me. I prefer movement toward a preventive, socially and environmentally aware model of health promotion rather than our current medical model of waiting for disease. But Western, heroic medicine, by doing what it does best, surely played a crucial role in saving Drew's life.

The affected area of Drew's head was isolated, fragmented from the rest of his body (let alone his soul) and attacked by doctors and technology. Careful scientific studies of bodily parts and technical fixes over the past decade had radically and fortunately improved the surgical means and radiation techniques used. Without these recent innovations, Drew's chances of survival would have been slim. Without a fragmented approach to the body, such research would not have been possible.

But Eastern medicine also played an important role in Drew's recovery. Despite theoretical conflict, West meshed compatibly with the East in practice. When Americans try alternative medicines, they usually do so after Western medicine has failed them, rather than initially combining varieties of treatments. In fact, complementary practitioners complain that they see the sickest people in their offices; people who come to them as a last resort after the drugs and surgeries have floundered. Drew, however, benefitted throughout from the best of multiple medical practices. He adopted Eastern methods to be more active in the Western model. He energetically set a course toward health that served him well.

Following his first surgery, Drew went to an acupuncturist who stimulated his immune system, strived to detoxify his body of the many toxins used to cure the cancer, and helped diffuse his stress--contributing to his physical, mental, and spiritual well being. During the radiation treatments he was told he could expect to be quite ill with headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite and so forth. Through a combination of acupuncture treatments (at times focusing on these possible side effects) and a modified macrobiotic diet, he avoided the expected ill effects. Instead of having to spend large parts of the day resting like others in his radiation group, he took two college courses as well as jazz bass lessons and enjoyed a rich cultural life.

By eating a diet high in organic vegetables, complex carbohydrates, low in animal products, with no refined, processed foods, he felt energetic and optimistic. Japanese and Canadian researchers have done studies on reducing excess radiation in the body by eating sea vegetables and miso soup. The fermented soy product in miso and the mineral/chemical content of sea vegetables adhere to toxins in the body and remove them, providing excellent complementary remedies for radiation and chemotherapy.

When skeptical doctors ask, "Where's the data?" the answer is "lots," published in medical journals from around the world (as discussed in Double Vision). German, Japanese, and Chinese studies have shown the effectiveness of herbal remedies such as echinacea, astragalus, and Juzentaihoto (TJ48) in strengthening the immune system and thus helping to cope with cancer as well as the side effects of conventional cancer treatments. We should all have access to this knowledge. While there is an explosion of information going on in this country on diverse medicines, we remain dramatically behind the rest of the Western and Eastern worlds in our awareness of the available options to make us feel better and stay healthier.

In addition, Drew was reclaiming his body by daily visualizing the tumor's being replaced by healthy, glowing cells, making both the unhealthy and healthy cells a part of himself. Rather than feeling betrayed by his body, he could offer himself sympathy and constructive action. Drew became an active partner in his health care rather than a passive pawn. By feeling stronger, he was better able to tolerate the medical procedures and appreciate how much they were helping him. (Radiation may be saving your life, but if you are too ill to eat, or your head is pounding, it doesn't feel that way.)

Drew believed he was working with the doctors to make himself well. He walked down two parallel roads: First the Western way of surgeons, drugs, blood tests, MRI's, and radiation--the world of the body; second, the Eastern path of healing foods, meditations, acupuncture--the world of the body drenched in the mind, impassioned by the spirit. At the level of theory and practitioners the roads never met. At the level of experience they became integrally entwined in Drew's body, his life and his recovery. East and West meshed, enhancing each other, offering Drew unique ways of healing and coping. Terry Shintani, a physician who combines a variety of medical approaches in his practice, sees alternative medicines and modern science "as two ways of looking at the same truth. One from the large 'macro' view, a more holistic but less precise view, and the other from a 'micro' view, a more precise analytical view but a somewhat narrower perspective."

Today, I look at my healthy son: 24 years old, a thriving graduate student and an accomplished speaker in universities and hospitals on the many options available for coping with cancer. I feel pride and relief. As a medical sociologist I have learned more than research and sitting safely with the professionals alone could ever have taught me.

Written by Alexandra Dundas Todd


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