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Farrah Fawcett's German Cancer Care

Actress, Ill With Anal Cancer, Had Treatment in Germany That's Not Approved in U.S.

Surgeon's View continued...

Sands says some of his anal cancer patients have expressed interest in going to Europe to get mistletoe and other herbal treatments touted as boosting the immune system.

The theory, Sands says, is "if you bolster the immune system and make it vibrant, then you can kill off cancer cells." But Sands says that approach doesn't have solid scientific proof. "It's really based mostly in theory more than in science."

Sands says he tells his patients that such treatments shouldn't be used instead of standard medical treatments -- in the case of anal cancer, that's chemotherapy and radiation, and surgery if chemotherapy and radiation aren't enough.

Sands says he isn't against other treatments being used in addition to standard medical therapy, and he urges patients to talk it over with their mainstream doctors.

Some of his patients have shown him the herbal treatments they've been given to check if there might be a conflict with their standard treatment. Sands says he generally hasn't seen troublesome ingredients but says some ingredients could make bleeding more likely, and he would discourage the use of those ingredients.

Overall, Sands says his patients haven't shown him products "that should be particularly detrimental; I just don't know how helpful it really is."

Suggestions for Patients

Michael Fisch, MD, MPH, directs the general oncology program at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He isn't one of Fawcett's doctors, but he sees many patients with advanced cancer.

Here are Fisch's suggestions for patients with advanced cancer who are disappointed with their treatment options:

  • Define and prioritize your goals. "What is it that you really want?" asks Fisch, noting that many patients have more than one goal -- like having hope for a new treatment, having less pain and better quality of life, and also not wiping out their family's financial resources. "If they just pick one goal and go after it, they might find that the other goals that weren't explicit get lost [by] the wayside."
  • Talk about your goals with your doctor. "It doesn't mean you have to ask permission from your doctor to go to some other country," Fisch says. But do listen to their perspective, ask what else you need to consider, and, if you do go forward, you'll need a copy of your health records.
  • Don't take good care for granted. The U.S. health care system has a lot of safety checks in place for patients, and not all countries match that. "We're not the only country that does research and can do good patient care. It's not an arrogant statement," says Fisch. " It's just [that] you have to ask the question, 'What are all the ingredients that make this go well and are those ingredients there" in the overseas facility you're considering. "It's more than just the doctor or the drug," Fisch says. There's a whole bunch of other things that make excellent care and hopeful care for the kind of goals you might have.
  • Consider your own backyard. Fisch points out that M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and other academic centers in the U.S. conduct clinical trials of new drugs and have mind-body and other programs. "Going far, far away and trying something unproven is not the only angle towards a hopeful result," Fisch says.
  • Recognize your vulnerability. "If you have advanced cancer, and people don't think they can shrink or cure it with existing treatments, you're vulnerable" to possible exploitation, Fisch says. That doesn't mean that every potential therapy is bogus. "Your hope for a miracle or hope for a cure might lead people to ask you to take treatments that are very expensive or very inconvenient or have a very, very improbable chance of helping you." His advice: Share your thoughts with other people, including health care professionals, who can help you weigh your choices.


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