The Cancer Dialogue

orthodox meets tradition for better treatment

Healthcare is a team sport – here is why doctors should polish communication skills with their patients.

In Brief

Watch: Professor Daniel Weber introducing integrated medicine in oncology.

“Developed over three thousand years ago, the medical system of Chinese Medicine (CM) is underpinned by a philosophy of holism.” More…  

One of the refrains of cancer is ‘Everyone knows someone’. And there’s a good chance if the disease hasn’t touched your life yet, it will, whether it's a relative, friend, colleague or yourself.

According to research more people in South Africa are increasingly dying of the disease, mostly lung, breast, cervical, colorectal or prostate cancer. The number of new cancer cases is projected to increase 46% by 2030.

The numbers, like the disease itself, are overwhelming. That is one of the reasons the National Department of Health is spending up to R432 million on cancer management pharmaceutical products (the figure includes the questionable price increases that are often granted to pharmaceutical companies).

There are many cited causes of cancer, from tobacco, lifestyle factors and radioactive elements to hereditary factors, bacterial and parasitic infections, and controversial compounds such as glyphosate. Whatever the true causes, the fact is, cancer is a critical threat to public health.

In June 2015, uSpiked crowned Advocate Robin Stransham-Ford and the IFP MP, Mario Oriani-Ambrosini (both now deceased from cancer) as ‘Men of Dignity’. Suffering from advanced prostate cancer, Stransham-Ford famously petitioned a Pretoria high court for permission to be euthanised. The court ruled in his favour posthumously.

Stransham-Ford and Oriani-Ambrosini spearheaded the Medical Innovation Bill, which primarily seeks to encourage responsible innovation in medical treatment. The Bill has been widely touted as seeking to legalise the arbitrary use of cannabis. However, a sober reading of the proposed law will reveal it rather seeks to open greater dialogue and understanding in the management of terminal diseases such as cancer.

The importance of fostering dialogue between practitioners and their patients was one of the recurring themes of a recent healthcare seminar in Cape Town that uSpiked attended.

The seminar sponsored by Wings Herbal Synergy featured Australian professor Daniel Weber, an accomplished medical scholar, author and an authority in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In 1992, Professor Weber completed his Ph.D. in Chinese medicine and created the world’s first English language database for Chinese herbal medicine.

To a lay journalist like me, Professor Weber came across as a down-to-earth individual whose main interest is to enhance the lives of his patients. His lectures emphasised the paramount role of dialogue in the management of ailments.

Breast & Prostate Cancer Protocols took center stage on the first day of the seminar, with Professor Weber opening the otherwise complex lecture with anecdotes about his patients’ thinking and beliefs.

“They come to me and say, ‘I want to beat this thing. I want to get rid of cancer.’ And I say to them; you don’t get cancer. You are cancer, it is you, and it is your cells that have gone wrong.”

Seemingly addressing the medical professionals in the room, the professor referred to the western medical model that is based on pathology, “… and there is nothing wrong with that. You are a pathogenic factor. You can work to eliminate that factor or remedial that factor simply by doing good research.”

Comparing cancer to HIV, Professor Weber said; “Thirty years ago, it (HIV) was discouraging and terrifying, and now it is relatively under control. Why? Because it is a simple disease - it is a viral infection.”

Cancer, on the other hand, he pointed out, has multiple causes.

“So, I want to create this dialogue… because cancer is a disease of great under communication [non-communication].Tumors do not communicate with their environment. They hijack and manipulate the environment, including the immune system and surrounding cells, to promote their own growth. Similarly, we live in a world where communication has broken down. Demagoguery is on the rise. People don't talk to each other.”

Professor Weber clearly believes in sharing knowledge. His lecture reflected an individual who has mastered not just the understanding of medicine, but also the art of connecting and empathizing with his patients. The professor has been incorporating modern techniques in traditional medicine formulas in order to achieve best outcomes for patients worldwide. For a country like South Africa whose traditional medicines and knowledge are constantly under threat from profiteers, there is much to be learned from this scholar.

The professor is particularly chagrined when medical specialists adopt an ‘ I am god and therefore know it all’ attitude, and neglect to listen and meaningfully talk to their patients. When medical consultations depend on how much medical aid plans can pay, humanity gets lost.

One specialist in the room, a breast surgeon who initially appeared hostile, questioned the purported lack of ‘double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trials’ often associated with modern medicine.

Due to lack of ‘dialogue’ or ‘communication’, Professor Weber stated, nearly every diagnosed cancer incidence automatically becomes a prime candidate for chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

I personally do not understand why radioactive substances that are deemed carcinogenic would be used in the treatment and management of cancerous cells. Also, I wonder how various popular chemotherapy drugs could have passed ‘double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trials’ considering the respective side effects.

The lack of dialogue has also seen big pharmaceutical companies routinely burying thousands of failed clinical trials. Thanks to the persistence of one medical journalist, Dr. Ben Goldacre, some pharmaceutical companies are slowly beginning to publish negative trials.

The key takeaway point was that patients are hardly given a choice. Patients need to ask questions and medical practitioners need to listen and be open to the alternative remedies available.

The myth that the only way to rid the body of cancer is to aim the biggest gun available, regardless of the damage to good cells, is perpetuated persistently. Perhaps it is time more oncologists were open to exploring beyond chemotherapy and radiology. 

A must read Paper on Chinese Medicine and Cancer.