Advances in Cancer Care You Can Count on

May 30, 2009 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gina Kolata's April 24, 2009 front page New York Times story ("Advances Elusive in the Drive to Cure Cancer") on the significant failure of our near-forty-year "war on cancer" provided a sobering and necessary corrective to inflated claims about cures already arrived or just around the corner. Kolata rightly chides those in the pharmaceutical, medical, and health food industries who claim that their approach promises a cure and notes our national failure to fund and launch truly innovative studies. She appropriately takes to task clinicians who use deceptive prognostic terminology: "progression free survival" does not, to the dismay of people who are so labeled, mean longer survival. On the other hand, Kolata's actual or implied dismissal of the potent preventive and therapeutic power of diet and exercise, and of the role that attitude, mood, and social support can play in enhancing quality of life and perhaps prolonging survival, is ill-informed and potentially dangerous.

Though there is indeed some disagreement about the value of "high-fiber or low-fat" [my underlining] diets in preventing cancers of various kinds, there is a general consensus, shared by the National Cancer Institute, that diet plays a significant role in at least 35-40% of all cancers. In recent years it has become abundantly clear, for example, that obesity has an important role in making us vulnerable to cancer and to its recurrence. And there is considerable evidence that certain kinds of diet can have significant anti-cancer properties and effects: epidemiological studies show that populations with diets high in the omega-3 fats that are present in fish oil have a lower incidence of several cancers; one study published in the Journal of The National Cancer Institute in 2006 shows that reducing dietary fat may increase survival time for women with breast cancer. And then there is the data on specific foods: cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) have significant, repeatedly observed anticancer effects; tomatoes may help prevent prostate cancer; and soy may be useful for the prevention of breast cancer in premenopausal women.

Kolata does not, curiously, discuss exercise, but appears to marginalize it along with nutrition, as she presents the case of a fit vegetarian woman, Phyllis Kutt, whose breast cancer has recurred. Exercise is not of course a panacea, but it does appear to be a powerful tool in both preventing cancer and forestalling its recurrence. One important study, published in 2005 in The Journal of The American Medical Association, showed that 3-5 hours of walking per week significantly reduced the rate of breast cancer recurrence.

Stress, which Kolata also chooses to ignore, appears to be another important and perhaps remediable factor in hastening recurrence. Though the evidence is still weak that stress causes cancer (the exception may be overwhelming stress, as in bereavement, divorce, or massive trauma), studies are accumulating which show that chronic stress may speed up recurrences. In particular, it appears that high levels of hormones like cortisol that stress produces can inhibit enzymes that would otherwise help protect us against cancer.

Finally, group support, which has also been shown to be so helpful in improving quality of life, though not necessarily (here the data is mixed) extending life, is also given short shrift. Kolata tells a horror story of a support group whose members, apparently unable to deal with their own fears, rejected Kutt and forced her out of the group after her cancer had recurred.

For more than ten years my colleagues and I at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine have accepted the challenge of exploring and clarifying the limitations, as well as the benefits, of conventional cancer care and of bringing an open-minded but critical perspective to therapies that are said to complement or be alternatives to them. We have been training what we call CancerGuides(R) -- health and mental health professionals and patient advocates who can provide informed and compassionate guidance to people with cancer and their families as they navigate among the bewildering array of therapeutic options and professional opinions. Our CancerGuides learn to cut through the hype about conventional care as well as complementary and alternative approaches. They work collaboratively with people with cancer and their families to create comprehensive programs of care which include evidence-based nutritional and herbal approaches, exercise, massage, acupuncture, and stress-reducing mind-body techniques as well as appropriate conventional therapies. They learn to help people with cancer put all therapeutic and preventive studies on a "level playing field" in which evidence for every approach, whether called "conventional" or "alternative," is looked at with the same thoughtful, critical gaze.

The oncology professionals and patient advocates we train (sometimes nonprofessionals who have themselves faced the challenges of cancer and its treatment can be the most discriminating and skillful of guides) help those they are guiding to ask the right, and often hard, questions of their oncologists. We also help these CancerGuides to develop the sensitivity that is necessary to encourage and support each person with cancer to make choices that are appropriate to his or her unique situation.

We teach our trainees mind-body approaches (guided imagery, meditation, biofeedback, yoga, etc.) and expressive therapies (written exercises, drawings, and movement) that are so helpful in reducing chronic stress (and levels of stress hormones) and in dealing with the difficult choices and challenges that cancer and its treatment presents. Finally, over time, we train these CancerGuides to lead groups that are genuinely supportive, groups that help people with cancer come to terms with their fears rather than (like Ms. Kutt's group members) shun those who provoke them, groups where true compassion trumps emotional convenience.

We as a nation have certainly not won the war on cancer. But we have learned over the last forty years that there are things each of us can do to reduce the risk of cancer and, in some instances, slow or forestall its recurrence. We have learned also that acting on our own behalf to create programs in which self-care is integral is, itself, stress-reducing and therapeutic, helping people with cancer to overcome the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that so often debilitate them. And we have found too, as so many people with cancer would testify, that such efforts often become an opening to remarkable self-discovery and psychological and spiritual growth.

There is no silver bullet for most cancers, or sure cure for those whose cancers have advanced. But creating a comprehensive program that includes diet, exercise, stress management, and genuine support, a full array of options critically examined, may offer a measure of scientifically grounded common-sense help from which all of us can take heart.

James S. Gordon, M.D., a psychiatrist, is creator of the CancerGuides(R) training program and Founder and Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. He is the author, with Sharon Curtin, of
Comprehensive Cancer Care: The Integrating Alternative, Complementary, and Conventional Therapies and of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.