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Which Cancer Patients Turn to Alternative Medicine?


WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Merle Diamond, MD

Aug. 28, 2000 -- About a quarter of cancer patients in a new study say that yes, indeed, they do use therapies outside mainstream medicine, and a third say they're interested in doing so.

The research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Cancer, was conducted at a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria, and involved more than 170 patients with various types of cancer. Therapies most commonly turned to included vitamins, herbs, and homeopathy.

The study found women more likely to incorporate these complementary or alternative therapies into their anticancer treatment plans than men. And younger people are more likely to do so than older. Patients with cancer that had spread also used alternative medicine more frequently than others.

Six years ago, Roger Cochran of Atlanta found himself in the latter category -- after he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer that had spread to the liver. In addition to regular medical treatment, Cochran, a Buddhist, embarked on an intensive spiritual program as added therapy. "I sensed very early on that one of the things I was missing was an interaction with a physician who knew me as an individual and as a person," he says. That observation led Cochran to "fire" his first oncologist and sign on with a second who was more comfortable with complementary therapies. "He said to me, there's no known cure for stage four colon cancer. Anything you do is going to be just as good as I do."

Among the things Cochran did: chanting for half an hour every day a 17th century Buddhist healing chant; listening to "healing" music; making photocopies of healthy livers and hanging them all over the house. "I've looked back, and I'm quite surprised at the amount of time I spent on some things -- such as convincing the cancer [through imagery] that it was embarked on a course that was not good for either of us."

Cochran says he was at first devastated to learn that the five-year survival rate for his cancer was about 7% -- but gained perspective after visiting a Buddhist teacher. "When haven't you been dying?" the teacher asked Cochran. That's when Cochran told himself, "death is a process, not an event. It occurs at the end of a long process we call life." And for Cochran, life goes on. He's now free of the cancer -- having become [in another of his visualizations] that dot at the far right side of a "survival" graph he found while researching his disease.

That willingness to research is another characteristic associated with users of complementary therapies, the study shows. Also, surprisingly, is a level of trust in regular medicine. And while alternative medicine users were more likely to seek out supportive care, the researchers found through psychological testing that they were no more distressed or lacking in social support than other cancer patients.

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