Feature Archive

The New Language of Medicine: Part I

Cancer and Treatment

WebMD Feature

When Lisa Duhl was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, it seemed she had two treatment options. She could have a mastectomy and undergo chemotherapy, or she could give alternative medicine a try.

Instead, the then 36-year-old Berkeley resident decided on a course of treatment that was quite unusual for the day: She decided to do both.

And now, seventeen years later, she's still free of cancer and hasn't had a recurrence.

Today, many people are finding that a combination of conventional and alternative therapies is the best bet for fighting diseases such as cancer, heart disease and other serious medical conditions. It's a new brand of medicine: Integrative medicine.

Ahead of Her Time

At the time that Duhl learned of her cancer, advocates of conventional and alternative medicine were at odds with each other, leading many people to believe they had to choose between the two kinds of medicine.

Duhl didn't see the situation that way. Her life was on the line, and she was willing to try any and every approach to stay alive. She decided to combine elements of both conventional and alternative medicine into a treatment plan that best addressed her physical, mental and emotional needs.

"I felt a lot of pressure... to use alternatives instead of conventional medicine," recalls Duhl, who just completed her doctorate in psychology. "People said chemotherapy would kill me, and that if I didn't do alternative medicine, I'd die.

"I told them I had a ten-year-old daughter who wouldn't forgive me if I didn't do everything I could to save my life."

Duhl's treatment regimen included visualization, the use of mental imagery to stimulate healing responses in the body. She practiced a Chinese form of meditation called chi kung and relied on acupuncture to reduce the nausea caused by chemotherapy. She also worked with a Native American medicine woman and several spiritual healers.

The Cheering Section

Fortunately, Duhl had the support of her husband, who was no stranger to integrative medicine. As a professor in the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health, Dr. Len Duhl had always encouraged his medical students to open their minds to the world of unconventional health practices and to integrate them into a more complete approach to healing.

"We depended upon the best and most advanced chemotherapy protocols available," he said. "We also found that while conventional medicine was important and excellent, it ignored certain issues that were important.

"The alternative practitioners supplemented Lisa's treatment, and as a team they were formidable."

Redefining Medicine

This formidable combination of conventional and alternative medicine is fast gaining mainstream acceptance. In fact, insurance companies and HMOs now provide coverage for acupuncture, massage and other treatments that were considered "unconventional" when Lisa Duhl was diagnosed with breast cancer.

As early as 1993, researchers at Harvard Medical School reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that one-third of all Americans used some form of unconventional medicine, such as mind/body therapies, chiropractic, massage, spiritual healing, nutritional and herbal medicine, homeopathy or acupuncture.

Most medical universities and hospitals are now incorporating many of these practices. At the same time, patients are demanding them. And, under the direction of integrative-medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, the first formal training program in integrative medicine for physicians is in full swing at the University of Arizona. With this atmosphere, medical students across the country are appealing for more education in the alternative arena.

By Any Other Name...

The pleas of patients and medical students are not without basis. Since the 1980s, researchers have been mounting scientific evidence that integrative medicine often works better than conventional treatment alone.

Dr. Dean Ornish's program at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, CA, is famous for reversing heart disease with a combination of diet, moderate exercise, stress management, meditation, group support, yoga, and conventional diagnostic procedures and drugs, as needed.

At the Stanford University Medical School, Dr. David Spiegel and his team of researchers have found that women with advanced breast cancer doubled their survival time by participating in group therapy while undergoing conventional treatments.

People living with AIDS are also benefiting from integrative medicine. Dr. Jon Kaiser at the Davies Medical Center in San Francisco, California, starts his patients on a program of diet, nutritional supplementation, herbs, acupuncture, exercise and mind/body medicine. He then incorporates drug therapies only if the rest of the program proves not to be sufficient. Almost 90 percent of Kaiser's patients improved or have been able to keep the disease at bay.

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