By BECKY SIMPSON
Last week I was on a panel at Dartington Hall, Devon, debating the rather strange question, ‘Does integrated medicine make sense?’ I say strange because in my world I thought we were way beyond that and the question would be, ‘How can people build a more integrated approach to their treatment?’
Apparently not everyone lives in my world. My fellow panellists were Sarah Woollaston the MP for the South Hams and a former GP, she is sceptical but well informed, intelligent, articulate and open to discussion. Simon Mills, a Cambridge graduate, herbalist and founder of the complementary medicine department at Exeter University. He was measured, equally articulate and exuded intelligence and knowledge. There was me who has had an ‘on-off’ battle with cancer for the past six years and who believes passionately that by using everything available to me I have not only survived but am enjoying life to the full. And then there was a man called Andy Lewis who runs a web site called the Quackometre that basically rubbishes anything that isn’t pharmaceutically-led. He apparently isn’t in the pay of ‘big Pharma’ but is just a very nice chap who is trying to protect me and all my fellow vulnerable patients from all those nasty people who are trying to make money out of my illness. Apparently he won’t tell us why he is qualified to set himself up as my champion because this would take away focus from his arguments.
Frustratingly at the start we debated what ‘integrated’ actually means, the accusation coming from the anti-group in the audience was that it is just yet another marketing term by the CAM lobby to make it more acceptable to mainstream medicine and patients. However once we had established that integrated medicine was a way a patient could use everything available to them to increase their survival odds and quality of life, we belatedly moved on.
Sarah Woollaston talked a lot about patient choice. My point was that a patient doesn’t have a choice if they don’t have access to all the information; I believe that on diagnosis a cancer patient should be put in touch with places like The Penny Brohn Centre and ‘integrated’ charities like CANCERactive, two sites I have found invaluable during my journey. My frustration is that often patients don’t find them until they are quite far into their treatment. Andy Lewis accused icon, the magazine of CANCERactive, (which last time out featured the latest work of half a dozen oncology professors and doctors, with assorted pieces on diet, exercise and supplements included) of advertising cancer treatments and of preying on us vulnerable patients. Personally I find the magazine extremely interesting and enlightening but what should I know, I’m just the patient.
Next came the question of boosting the Immune System. Dr Stephen Hopwood asked what Western Medicine does to boost the immune system. Bizarrely the only thing either Andy or Sarah could come up with was vaccines and then Andy even came up with the ‘theory’ that if we boost our immune system too much it will go into overdrive and start attacking us! Fortunately Simon in his very measured calm way explained that if it happened at all that was a completely different disease.
There was one well-intentioned young man who did get quite emotional about chemicals in food. All I can say is the only way the forces of light are going to win these arguments is by being calm and measured with research behind us, rather than making emotional and random accusations about big Pharma multinationals trying to poison us or keep us sick for their own purposes.
Next we talked about Sodium Bicarbonate and the whole body acid /alkaline thing. Apparently, Andy believes that if I change my body pH I will die! All I can say is now I am following a largely alkaline diet and drink my bi-carb daily; I have changed my pH and I’m certainly not dead yet!
One big issue for him was that many of these so called alternatives haven’t been tested or researched. When I bought up the National Health Institute in America which research these complementary and newer treatments, he said it was a complete waste of money; they’ve come up with nothing and the money should be spent elsewhere. Which begs the question, ‘So does he want them researched or not?’
Acupuncture came under fire next. A favourite of mine. Andy said it was invented only fifty years ago, something Simon who has researched acupuncture for many years was intrigued by. He added he was fascinated by the books Andy must be reading. It’s off the point anyway, it works and the Cancer Research web site backs me on that!!
One thing that became very depressing to me was that Sarah Woollaston came back again and again saying that if things hadn’t been through a double blind, placebo-controlled trial they weren’t worth using. Depressing and frustrating , because for many causes and complimentary therapies epidemiology has shown the issue clearly. In other cases these double blind trials simply won’t work – how could you research yoga or meditation. You have either done it or you haven’t. You can’t fool half the trial group into thinking they did it. But all this doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of research to back them up. Double blind trials have also proven to be flawed in the biased way some Pharma companies recruit people anyway and most drugs in Britain today have not been through this supposed Gold Standard of tests.
The closing question was one that is very close to my heart: ‘When can we stop all the mud slinging and start working together to stop human suffering?’ Well, it seems there are still a lot of people out there driven by something that doesn’t put the patients’ best interests at the centre of their motivation. There seems to be an awful lot of egos, politics and money getting in the way of really trying to find the best way of helping cancer patients.
Andy Lewis, the Quackometer chap, was a very pleasant man to talk to; even if slightly nervous. For some reason, he has set himself up to protect me and my fellow patients against people who are going to take us for a ride, give us false hope and strip us of our money. All I can say is, Andy if you’re reading this, thanks; but just because I have cancer doesn’t mean I have lost the use of my brain or my judgement. I am more than aware of the people who genuinely want to help me and the people who through ignorance, self-benefit or some other more strange motive are really attempting to gain out of my misfortune.
‘Does integrated medicine make sense?’ With survival rates in this country being some of the lowest in Europe, with conventional medicine bringing such horrible side-effects and so often only offering ‘management’ not ‘cure’ of the cancer, with an ‘explosion’ in research showing that complementary therapies can increase my survival time, it not only makes sense, it is essential.