After the announcement that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year before and had chosen to forego chemotherapy and instead use an alternative herbal medicine treatment, actress and fitness/diet maven Suzanne Somers, long categorized as a ditzy blonde for her portrayal of Chrissie on the 70s sitcom "Three's Company," was called a "bad role model for America's women."
Jumping right in to the fray to criticize Somers' decisionto use a homeopathic remedy, Dr. Susan Love of the Susan Love MD Breast Cancer Foundation said on CNN, "The implication is it's just as good and that it's just as proven and that somehow it is an alternative, a viable alternative to chemotherapy, and that's really not so right now."
While repeating this idea that American woman are at risk if they choose to emulate Somers, and that Somers is being irresponsible, the real message that has been lost is that Somers carefully considered her options, consulted with a number of physicians, and ended up choosing a course of treatment that is becoming much more common for today's empowered health consumers -- a combination of both conventional and alternative approaches.
In an appearance on the Today Show on April 17, 2001, Somers indicated that her breast lump was not found during a standard mammogram, but rather the quarter-sized tumor was discovered using more sensitive 3-D ultrasound imaging. Her doctor suggested the ultrasound due to Somer's dense and cyst-prone breasts, as well as her family history -- a sister had already been diagnosed with breast cancer.
In her interview with Today's Katie Couric, Somers discussed the fact that after her breast cancer diagnosis, she had a lumpectomy, with some reconstructive surgery due to the amount of breast tissue removed, plus a sentinel node biopsy of her lymph nodes. Her sentinel node biopsy showed no lymph node involvement, and one of her physicians felt she did not need preventive chemotherapy. Another physician recommended it, and a third physician she consulted was "on the fence." Somers, like some women faced with the option to take preventive chemotherapy and no clear mandate to do so by her physician, chose to forgo it. Somers did, however, agree to receive conventional radiation treatment.
The choices Somers made are not unusual...there are other women with breast cancer -- cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes -- who also choose to forego preventive chemotherapy, and whose doctors support this decision.
The difference is, Somers is being villified, because she has also chosen to also follow up her conventional treatment with an unconventional therapy to enhance her immune system. Somers is taking an herbal treatment called Iscador, a derivative of mistletoe that may help enhance the immune system of cancer patients. The benefits of the product, if any, have not been conclusively established. The media, however, are generating hysteria over Somers' decision by characterizing her as having "chosen homeopathic remedies to treat her breast cancer," rather than more accurately explaining that she has chosen to combine accepted and tested conventional treatments -- such as lumpectomy, node biopsy and radiation -- with an herbal treatment that may help enhance her immune system.
Even noted alternative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil, speaking to Larry King, on CNN's "Larry King Live," mischaracterized Somers' treatment approach. "My understanding is that in Germany no one represents Iscador as a cure for cancer," he said. "It is used as an adjunctive treatment to help stimulate the immune system and increase body defenses. So I would be nervous about relying on that as a primary treatment for breast cancer."
Why are so many members of the media -- and even alternative medicine experts such as Dr. Weil -- so quick to misrepresent Somers' taking an herbal supplement as her "primary treatment for breast cancer," after she's already undertaken a program of conventionally recommended treatment?
The reason is that despite the fact that more Americans paid visits to alternative practitioners than conventional ones in 2000, there's a serious disconnect between conventional and alternative medicine, and the tendency is still to question and distrust the alternative options, to rely only on the purely conventional, big-business medical solutions to cancer.
Six months ago, a close family member of mine was diagnosed with lung cancer. Surgery to remove what was supposed to be an isolated lung lesion revealed further spread of the cancer into other areas of the lung, and the surgeon told us that the prognosis was poor, and that with chemotherapy, my relative was likely to survive less than 2 years.
After an initial period of shock, we refused to believe that this prognosis was the medical reality we would be forced to accept. While my relative is the type of person I knew would do whatever conventional therapies -- such as chemotherapy -- would be recommended, I also knew that she is a strong and very determined person with a great deal to live for. I also knew that there are some amazing alternatives out there that could help complement whatever her oncologist recommended.
So, accessing a phenomenal network of experts over in several intense weeks, I was able to talk with dozens of doctors, cancer experts, nutritionists, cancer advocates, and patients, who helped my family member and I devise a comprehensive cancer treatment program.
And after that fact-finding period, I came to rely on a series of resources that I now consider absolutely essential for anyone diagnosed with cancer -- whether it's thyroid cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, or any other form of cancer. I call it my Cancer Toolkit.
The Cancer Toolkit
Remarkable Recovery : What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and Staying Well
By Marc Ian Barasch, Caryle Hirshberg
This is the first book any cancer patient or family member should read, because it offers hope. When they say that a cancer is "only x % curable," and you know that you want to be in that percent who are cured...how can you best increase the odds that you will be one of those who recovers? This practical but heart-felt book offers hope, guidance, and the bes tpossible understanding of how even the most hopeless cancer patients can and have recovered.
Anatomy of an Illness As Perceived by the Patient
By Norman Cousins
A very short book, and fast read -- but a must read. Yes, this is the guy who is usually described as the one who felt that "laughter" was a cure. But his book is much much more. It will make you think about the role that your thoughts, and attitudes play in your health, and how some alternatives may in fact be the answers for your illness.
Cancer: Increasing Your Odds for Survival : A Resource Guide for Integrating Mainstream, Alternative and Complementary Therapies
By David Bognar, et al
This book is a basic operating manual for anyone who believes, as I do, that the best cancer treatment is a combination of the best of conventional and alternative options. Bognar's sensible and smart book -- based on an award-winning television documentary -- helps you determine how to integrate conventional treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy with alternatives such as nutrition, herbs, mind-body medicine, and much more.
The Ralph Moss Report
Ralph Moss' reports are not inexpensive...but at around $300, they are perhaps the best investment you could possibly make in your health and wellness...and life! Once there's an formal and specific cancer diagnosis, you contact Dr. moss and order a Moss Report on the particular type of cancer involved. The Moss Report does weeks and months of research for you -- looking at the conventional treatments, the various chemotherapies, the surgical options, the best hospitals and doctors around the country for this type of cancer treatment, plus extensive, scientifically-based study of the alternative treatments that can be used to complement the conventional treatments, as well as some alternatives that some physicians might use in lieu of conventional therapies. With extensive lists of the best conventional and alternative cancer specialists around the country, and the constantly updated binder format features the latest research findings on drugs, herbs, nutrition and more.
Love, Medicine and Miracles : Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from a Surgeon's Experience With Exceptional Patients
By Bernie S. Siegel
Dr. Bernie Siegel explains how to be an exceptional patient. As Dr. Siegel says, an exceptional patient is not one who meekly listens to what the doctor says and does it. In fact, according to Dr. Siegel, the patients most frequently labeled as "problems" are the ones most likely to survive cancer...find out how love, self-acceptance, and asking the right questions are key to healing.
Cancer As a Turning Point : A Handbook for People With Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals
By Lawrence LeShan
Considered one of the founding fathers of mind-body therapy, Lawrence LeShan's book talks about the whys -- the emotional and mind-body issues -- that may underly cancer. In his book, he offers exercises that reflect his more than 35 years working with cancer patients. The exercises involve reflection, discussion and writing that are designed to help cancer patients define their goals and questions and come to terms with fears.
Healing Words : The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine
By Larry Dossey, MD
Dossey, a doctor, is one of the first physicians to truly explore the relationship between prayer, healing, and medicine. Using real-life examples and personal anecdotes, Dossey explores his belief that prayer can be as valid a healing tool as drugs or surgery. It's not a sectarian-type book, so it's appropriate for people of all faiths.
Getting Well Again
O. Carl Simonton MD, et al
The Simontons, who did extensive research with cancer patients at their Cancer Counseling and Research Center, actually studied and explored the science behind the"will to live." They talk about how how positive expectations, self-awareness, and self-care can contribute to survival, and outline the types of self-help approaches -- such as imagery, relaxation, stress reduction, etc. -- that can complement conventional medical treatment.
Guided Imagery Audiotapes
Belleruth Naparstek produces the most wonderful guided imagery audiotapes, and I can't recommend her enough. I am a big fan of her general wellness and weight loss tapes. She has two tapes in her series that are wonderful for cancer patients. Health Journeys for People With Cancer offers guided imagery to help cancer patients reduce stress and muster healing energy and healing forces to build their immune system and get rid of cancer. And Health Journeys for People Undergoing Chemotherapy is an excellent tape for those are are actually receiving chemo. With imagery that helps the mind rally the body's forces to help target the chemotherapy, this tape is one my relative says has been wonderful to listen to during every single chemo session she's had!
As for my relative, she's feeling fantastic, looking good, hasn't lost much weight -- just a few extra pounds -- and still is working and doing things normally after five rounds of very intensive chemotherapy, plus a customized anti-cancer diet designed by a holistic cancer expert, plus a series of natural immune-enhancing supplements, plus regular guided imagery, plus a spiritual retreat, and some energy work such as Reiki. The week of April 16, 2001, she had a cat scan. The radiologist was looking for tumors in her lungs to radiate, once her chemotherapy was complete. The radiologist was shocked and surprised to report that the lung catscan was entirely normal, there was nothing to radiate, no evidence of cancer whatsoever in her lungs. We're under no illusions that the cancer may not recur at some point, but to go from what was practically a terminal diagnosis to having cancer free lungs and general good health is truly a remarkable recovery.
Interestingly, in her Today Show interview, Suzanne Somers mentioned that she may too may choose chemotherapy, and that based on some of the things she was discovering from listening to other doctors, it was something she was beginning to reconsider and rethink for herself.
Instead of being villified or derided, Suzanne Somers should be applauded. Not for her specific choices, because the combination of conventional and alternative therapies chosen for cancer must be unique decisions made with a practitioner, and should be specific to each person's own type of cancer, general condition and medical history.
But rather, Suzanne Somers should be applauded for being an empowered patient -- investigating her options, getting multiple opinions, keeping an open mind, and realizing that fighting cancer may require a combination of conventional and complementary approaches -- a "holistic" approach in the true meaning of the word.