Since 2009, when Brenda Denzler, a writer and editor living in North Carolina, was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and very aggressive form of breast cancer with only a 40 to 50 percent five-year survival rate, she’s devoted a great deal of her time to understanding and writing about cancer and its treatment.
In a recent column for CURE that marked the nine-year anniversary of her diagnosis, she reflected on her exhaustive search for an alternative to conventional treatment.
“I had always said that if I ever got cancer I would use holistic (i.e., “alternative”) methods to treat it,” Brenda says.
Still, she knew because of the nature of her diagnosis, she’d need to submit to conventional treatment “if I wanted a realistic chance of living.
“That doesn’t mean I accepted this with grace and a peaceable spirit. Indeed, I wailed and railed against the evils of what I was about to have to endure,” Brenda says. “At the same time, I searched high and low to find someone who could assure me that going all-natural, instead, would work just as well—if not better.”
A lack of confidence
She sought advice from three health care professionals, but not doctors, because she believed they’d be biased because of their training and need to adhere strictly to AMA standards. The advisors needed to be very experienced working with cancer patients within their fields of expertise, and they needed to have, as Brenda writes, “a track record suggesting that they were at least very sympathetic to an alt-med (alternative) treatment approach.”
The three responses followed the same surprising line: Follow your oncologist’s treatment plan. Their success with alternative treatments, it turned out, was very limited, and even then, only as a supplemental therapy to conventional treatment.
All the while, Brenda was also exploring every viable resource, including the supposed alternative-treatment success story of a friend’s friend’s son, “looking desperately for a logical promising reason to skip my upcoming first chemo and turn exclusively to something less toxic.
“I fought against it. I agonized over it. I hated it with every fiber of my being,” Brenda says. “But I did conventional treatment for my IBC. I’m not sorry I did.”
Since then, Kelly A. Turner, PhD, published Radical Remission, a convincing recounting of three dozen cases in which cancer patients achieved complete remission or long-term stable disease in situations where it wasn’t expected to happen—or even medically possible.
“How to square that, then, with a recent article published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, ‘Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and its Impact on Survival’?” Brenda asks. The study found that, in general, patients who used alternative rather than conventional treatment had a 2.5 times greater risk of death; for breast cancer patients, specifically, it was 5.7 times greater.
One does not necessarily disprove the other, is the conclusion Brenda ultimately reached. Considered at the level of large groups, as in the case of the study, alternative cancer treatments alone don’t reliably target the major features shared by nearly all cancerous cells that need to be targeted for a successful outcome, she writes. But, on an individual level, as Turner shows, alternative treatments may be targeting something unique to certain instances of cancer that conventional treatments aren’t.
“If I’m right, what does this mean for a person newly diagnosed with cancer?” Brenda asks. “It means you’d be crazy to ignore what population-level studies have shown us are treatments that work—that may even cure.
“But you’d be just about as crazy to cry ‘fie’ about alternative approaches to cancer, as too many in the mainstream medical world are wont to do,” she says. “Despite the nay-sayers’ deep and sometimes aggressive disdain for treatment methods that do not have the FDA’s imprimatur, some so-called alternative methods have legitimate experiential and experimental evidence for their efficacy.”