Earlier this year I helped facilitate the ‘Skills for Healing’ cancer retreat with Dr. Rob Rutledge, MD and Timothy Walker, PhD in Sackville, NB. Among the excellent topics discussed during that weekend retreat, the most common question that people asked me was “why did I choose to specialize in treating cancer?” In this article, I will highlight the main themes of my response.
To help guide patients
Out of all the possible disease diagnoses, cancer has the most fear associated with it. Unfortunately, nearly half of all Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. This means that just about every family across the country will be affected by cancer some time in their life. Being diagnosed can leave the person and their family in a state of overwhelm. They are shuttled into the cancer system with multiple visits with specialists, must undergo multiple blood tests and extensive imaging, and have some major decisions to make.
My primary motivation is to help the patient and their families through this transition: to listen to them, to organize, to simplify, to explain, and, at times, to advocate. The Latin root of ‘doctor’ means to teach. Being diagnosed with cancer comes with a steep learning curve that involves new terminology, new treatments, new decisions, and new future plans. My goal is to help guide people through this process.
Experts in natural medicines
It has been found that around 70% of cancer patients use natural therapies. Often, when friends and family hear of their loved one’s diagnosis, they will lovingly bombard them with information about supplements touted as miracle cures on the internet. Therefore, one of my first goals is to help guide patients through the confusing marketplace of supplements and natural therapies by ensuring that such treatments are effective, safe, and not interfering with their conventional treatments. Naturopathic Doctors are trained to choose the most effective therapies specific to your case and to guide you on which to avoid.
Personal experiences fuel passion
When my beloved Opa was diagnosed with cancer he was also in search of a cure. When the conventional medical system told him cure was no longer possible he searched for solutions in the natural medicine field. Unfortunately, the marketing of some of these products takes advantage of the newly diagnosed in their vulnerable state. My Opa was sick and scared, and was sold into a multitude of different cancer ‘cure’ products and therapies that in my opinion were nothing but false hope. That experience left a bitter taste in my mouth. Therefore, I was driven to enter the field of naturopathic oncology in order to make sure that cancer patients are investing their resources, time, energy, and hope into natural products that have scientific evidence and clinical results.
Intrigued by the intricacies of cancer biochemistry
My science background in cell and molecular biology was the perfect fit for the oncology field. Cell and molecular biology involves learning what is going on inside the body at the cellular level. My favourite course at the University of Victoria was the ‘molecular basis of cancer’. In that course we looked at intricate details of all the pathways that drive cancer growth. Contrary to common belief, cancer is not a single disease. Cancer is actually a collection of 200+ diseases, with each cancer type behaving very differently. At the Moncton Naturopathic Medical Clinic, we individualize your treatments based on your type of cancer and the driving factors associated with that cancer type. For example, in breast cancer, some of the molecular targets include IGF-1, NFκB, EGFR, PI3K/Akt/mTOR, STAT-3, IL-6, and VEGF. The cancer cell can hijack these signaling pathways and overuse them to cause uncontrolled cancer cell growth. We use targeted medicines to regulate each of these overexpressed pathways. For example, a highly concentrated extract from green tea given at a therapeutic dose inhibits VEGF; vitamin D3 at the optimal blood concentration inhibits IGF signaling; and R+ alpha lipoic acid regulates NFkB. This is called ‘precision medicine’ and in April 2014, I completed a course called “genomic and precision medicine” through the University of California to further explore my interest in this growing field.
Team approach to comprehensive cancer care
I always grew up playing sports and valued the importance of being a team player. Therefore, another reason why I enjoy the oncology field is that out of all the fields of medicine, cancer care has the greatest potential benefit of multiple practitioners working cooperatively together. Oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, nurses, extramural care, family doctors, and Naturopathic Doctors may all play an important role throughout the process. When I started my practice here in NB, I saw too many patients not disclosing all of the natural medicines they were taking to their oncology team. However, I believe that it is best to keep everyone fully informed of any actions taken. That is why, with the patient’s permission, I always write a letter to the patient’s medical team describing the treatments that I have recommended and the research behind those specific natural medicines. I envision a new model of integrative cancer care here in the Atlantic. One which involves conventional doctors and Naturopathic Doctors working together and combining the best of both medicines to create a comprehensive cancer treatment plan that would give you the best possible care.
On-going interest to new approaches to cancer survivorship
I am currently writing this article from the prestigious Harvard University’s School of Medicine. I am in Boston because I am attending a course called “Cancer survivorship: a distinct phase of cancer care.” In this course, leading experts from all over the world are presenting on solutions to the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council’s report on the four essential deficits of current survivorship care: 1) lack of coordination between oncology specialists and primary care providers to ensure that all of the survivor’s health needs are met; 2) lack of prevention of recurrent or new cancers; 3) lack of surveillance for cancer spread or recurrence; and 4) lack of intervention for treatment-induced complications.
At our clinic we have already put in protocols to help manage each of the deficits mentioned above. In my previous Times and Transcript article, I discussed how targeting five key pathways in the body can be important for prevention of recurrent or new cancers (click the title to read: Dual Approach to Integrative Cancer Care - Step 2: Preventing Cancer Re-Occurrence). The five primary root causes of cancer are: a weakened immune system, excess inflammation, imbalanced hormones, excess blood sugar levels, and poor digestion/detoxification. Each person is at a different stage of health in each of the above-mentioned categories. Naturopathic Doctors are skilled at creating an individualized treatment plan to correct and support each of the five pathways.
Experts in managing side effects
We also find it very important to help patients prevent treatment-induced complications and side effects. I don’t see this being well managed by conventional care, and therefore, I am always happy to let my patients know that there are many naturopathic medicines that can be safely added to help with complications such as neuropathy (nerve damage), bowel disturbance, fatigue, nausea, cardiac toxicity, chemo brain, mouth sores, and a decline in platelets, white blood cell and/or red blood cells. The earlier we can stay on top of these side effects the less chance of them delaying the optimal treatment schedule and the less likelihood of long-term complications. Although there are naturopathic treatments that can be helpful even after the side effects have been established, in general, I believe in the old adage of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In my next article, I will discuss the naturopathic approach to these side effects in more detail.
Both naturopathic medicine and conventional medicine have their strengths. The debate is no longer whether it’s one or the other, but rather moving forward with the integration of both in cancer treatments. I am committed to bring the most cutting-edge naturopathic therapeutics to the Maritimes. A cancer diagnosis can be intimidating, but it can also be the moment where the patient chooses a new path for their health. It is my honor to be part of this journey and to be able to empower the patient to become an active participant in their health.
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