Sometimes I fear health professionals are fighting a losing battle.
Where people who are very sick, and sometimes dying, choose to ignore evidence and medical expertise and walk away from treatments that may save their lives. Instead they opt for alternative therapies that might meet their emotional needs, but are backed by little more than anecdotes and personal experiences.
They do this because they are scared and feeling completely alone, but their doctors are often oblivious to this. I know this because I’ve been in the hospital bed myself.
I consider myself a man of science. I was trained as a scientist, have worked as a science communicator and am now studying to become a doctor.
But at the age of 28, I was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer and told I needed aggressive treatments.
When this happened, I found myself drawn to treatments that had little evidence — in a bid to take back control of my body and do something that would help me beat this disease.
I was on the brink of saying no to conventional treatment. I considered abandoning the medicine that in my head I knew would save me, but in my heart terrified me.
Pleading for time
In a small crowded room in a busy hospital, I pleaded with my doctors: “Can’t you just take the colon, or rectum and leave my bladder and reproductive organs alone?”
I made this plea because I was petrified. I was facing chemotherapy, radiation, and major surgery — that I might not survive. If I did survive, it had the potential to leave me with erectile dysfunction and two bags permanently hanging off me to collect my urine and faeces.
This fear propelled me head first into exploring other therapies and treatments — meditation, acupuncture, energetic healing and juicing.
These gave me a sense of power over my body, as though I could have an effect on the outcome of my cancer, and it wasn’t in the hands of others alone.
My doctors didn’t agree. At our meeting they warned me, unequivocally, that they don’t see people who try alternative methods “until they are crippled by pain and it’s too late to save them”.
Their opinion was: you have cancer, we have the treatments that can cure this.
But I needed to feel like I was contributing. I wanted to play an active role in my treatment. Besides what else was I going to do? I had appointments once a week. How else was I going to fill my time in between?
It made sense to do everything in my power to help the outcome, which was to stay alive.
It’s hard to know how many people turn down conventional cancer treatments for alternative ones. Once these people opt out of the medical system, it is very difficult to measure. Studies also tend to group complementary and alternative therapies together — even though they represent very different attitudes towards mainstream medicine.
Complementary therapies are generally pursued alongside mainstream medicine. In contrast, alternative therapies are pursued in total replacement of mainstream treatments.
Many people believe these therapies are harmless, but that isn’t always the case. Complementary and alternative medicines and supplements aren’t regulated in the same way as conventional medicines, and very few treatments have been subjected to rigorous scientific analysis. As well, these medications can interact with conventional medicines, which is a significant issue for people undergoing cancer treatment.
Those selling and promoting alternative treatments rarely discuss the risks, especially the biggest risk of all — missing that small window of opportunity to hit a cancer with the best treatment possible, usually aggressive chemo, radiation or surgery.
They gave me hope
In the end, I followed my doctor’s treatment plan. But I did other things — meditating, drinking apple cider vinegar, and eating a vegan diet. I also saw complementary healers. These more gentle treatments seemed a universe away from the sickness and pain of chemo and surgery. They gave me hope.
My medical treatment helped me to survive bowel cancer and I’m now half way through a medical degree. But I will never forget what it’s like to be naked under a hospital gown, lying on a trolley and feeling vulnerable in a large operating theatre.
My experience opened my eyes to the kinds of things that medicine can’t offer — but that may have benefits.
It made me realise that even though some treatments might not help people medically, they are going to help their spirit, sense of purpose and sense of control.
When I was making decisions about my cancer treatment, you could have presented any number of papers to me and it wouldn’t have meant anything. What I really wanted was for somebody to hold my hand and say:
As a doctor-in-training, I have found one of the most important lessons we learn as doctors is that people need to be emotionally propped up through major medical decisions. Support during the decision-making process, when dread and anxiety are elevated, is fundamental.
We all need to remember that a person with cancer, or any other health condition for that matter, is so much more than their illness. So much more than their cure. They are a complex human being, struggling with an incredibly difficult situation and having to make hard decisions.
Unless doctors remember that they have to bring the whole person on the journey, and make an effort to travel along beside them, then these people sometimes won’t be there.
They will choose their own path, an alternate path, and you might not see them again until it’s too late.