Phytochemicals- My Complementary Therapy

I am much the same as Graham Davies , who posted a comment to my last blog entry (thanks Graham!). In part he said:

“I am sceptical about alternative and herbal remedies, although I recognise the fact that some naturally occurring chemicals are believed to have a positive effect. For that reason, I drink green tea and red wine, and I eat quite a lot of garlic, broccoli and dark chocolate. Regardless of whether these foods are beneficial or not, I like them anyway, so I can’t really lose, can I?”

For over 30 years it has been known that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is protective against certain types of cancer and heart disease. New compounds naturally occuring in plants have been discovered, these compounds are called phytochemicals. Thousands of different types of phytochemicals have been discovered, more are being discovered all the time. Phytochemicals provide plants with color and flavor, but also protect plants from microbes, insects and oxidation (they are antioxidants). Phytochemicals offer many protective benefits to plants. It is believed they also provide protective benefits to humans and help explain the health benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables.

Phytochemicals also seem to work best in combination with each other. The more colorful fruits and vegetables are rich in phytochemicals. A single orange has 200 different kinds of phytocemicals. Green tea is rich phytochemicals. These substances are not produced by our bodies and must be consumed in food. Once consumed they only stay in our bodies for a day or two.

Of course, when the protective benefits of phytochemicals became known, companies immediately began to investigate creating phytochemical supplements in pill form. But no one knows which are the most beneficial phytochemicals and in what amount and in what combination they are most effective. And how many pills would be required to provide the amount of phytochemicals in one serving of a particular fruit or vegetable? Would processed or artificially created phytochemicals still be as beneficial as those found in fresh fruits and vegetables? Those questions have not been answered.

This is a link to an article by Ohio State University regardiong phytochemicals, it’s worth a read: Phytochemicals –

Phytochemicals – Vitamins of the Future?, HYG-5050-98

I eat a lot more fruits and vegetables and do now buy green tea- that is a change I’ve made in the sense of complementing my medical therapies. It’s easy, relatively cheap, and can cause no harm. It also gives me an excuse to buy some of the more expensive fruits and vegetables I love, even when they are out of season. And now my family and I go blueberry and strawberry picking almost every year!

Holistic Medicine

As an addendum to my last post, I would like to express my thoughts in regards to holistic medicine. I am a big proponent of holistic medicine.

Holistic medicine in my view is the pursuit of optimum health in all aspects: physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual. It’s about balance and overall wellbeing, not just physical health and comfort.

A cancer diagnosis effects one’s health in all of these areas, our bodies are sick, we are mentally overwhelmed, we experience a roller coaster of emotions, our social lives are turned upside down and if we haven’t already, we truly start to explore our spiritual lives. Medical care in a physical sense only deals with one aspect of a cancer diagnosis. And I do believe that for the best outcomes, we need to work to achieve optimum health in all areas, we need holistic therapy.

While I don’t believe in the extremes of “my repressed thought caused my cancerous tumor” (a notion that can carry with it overwhelming unhealthy guilt), I do believe that when all areas of our being are in optimum health, we will have better outcomes. Inner peace and wellbeing does help our body function better, it can have a positive effect on our appetite, our sleep patterns, even the functioning of our immune systems. I am fascinated by the relatively new branch of medicine that deals with how our mental state impacts our nervous system and hormonal systems, psychoneuroimmunology. It’s an evolving field I am closely watching.

For purposes of clarification, complementary therapies are therapies that complement traditional medical care. So if I used an herbal remedy in addition to my chemotherapy, it would be considered a complementary therapy.

An alternative therapy is one in which a therapy is used instead of, or as an alternative to, conventional therapy. So for example if I used an herbal supplement instead of chemo, it would be considered an alternative therapy.

A good site to check out in evaluating complementary and alternative therapies is the US National Institutes of Health site:

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

I’ve tried to and hope to continue to make my web site “holistic”, hence the addition of some of the reading material, the blog, information about hospice and discussion of the emotional aspects of diagnosis and treatment. I hope to add more about nutrition and support groups and other supportive services as my site evolves. Suggestions are welcome and appreciated!

Did I use alternative and complementary therapies?

I am often asked by those newly diagnosed if I added anything to my medical care in the sense of natural, herbal or alternative remedies. Maybe this is a long answer to a short question, but here goes:

I have always as a medical professional been biased towards documentation in sound medical research. I’ve been skeptical of most media reports of fantastic or miracle cures.

All herbal remedies are required in the US to be labeled as dietary supplements (not medications as they are not subject to FDA scrutiny as medications for effectiveness and purity). Statements herbal remedies make regarding health benefits must have the disclaimer “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration . This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”.

Many herbal remedies do interfere with the effectiveness of prescription medications. St. John’s Wort would have reduced the effectiveness of my particular chemotherapy by 40%. My nursing drug handbook now has individual listings for drug/herbal interactions, not just drug/drug interactions. They are not harmless.

I refer those who want more information about an herbal remedy to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s site:

About Herbs, Botanicals & Other Products

Another good site that helps you evaluate claims of miraculous treatments is Mayo Clinic’s:

Complementary and alternative medicine: Evaluate claims of treatment success

But back to answering the question- did I use any complementary or alternative remedies?

I did try visualization- picturing my white cells destroying my cancer cells- for about 10 minutes. I did try to eat more fruits and vegetables and to just eat healthier food in general, though I still ate occasional fast food burgers and fries. I did some distance biking, even while on chemo, as much for stress relief as for exercise. I ate sugar, and after my cytoreduction surgery when I was underweight for awhile I ate lots of desserts in an attempt to regain the weight.

I did pray more and tended to my spiritual side more.

But I don’t believe repressed negative thoughts caused my cancer. I don’t believe that thinking only happy and positive thoughts cures cancer or prevents it from recurring. I don’t believe my cancer was a punishment. I didn’t use Barley Green, I didn’t use any herbs, I didn’t eat only organic food, I didn’t become a vegan, I didn’t do yoga. I did quit smoking cold turkey, which was very difficult. I took multivitamins.

I did at times feel an urge to try some of the alternative methods, I think more to feel I was doing something, anything, to have some sense of control after I completed chemo. But I never succumbed to that urge, maybe out of laziness as I would not have used these therapies unless I’d researched them extensively for safety and effectiveness.

I did seek out the best medical care available to me at the time for my diagnosis based on the documented research available then. I think that was the best thing I did for myself.

Reinventing my life

I am at a kind of new crossroads lately. And I like it. I’m approaching 50 years old. I’m also approaching an empty nest, which I will celebrate as it will mean I’ve lived long enough to complete my greatest and most rewarding goal to date, raising my kids to adulthood.

I don’t take tomorrow or a future for granted. Cancer and an initial terminal diagnosis changed my outlook on almost everything in my life drastically. I’ve been living one day at a time for about 6 years now. I haven’t made many commitments to the future in the past several years. I’ve been timid about approaching tomorrow for a long while.

But I found myself a few nights ago enjoying planning my life beyond right now. I started to dream a bit, plan a bit for the future, construct goals. I know the future can change at any given moment, but I decided to make plans anyway. I even started thinking about maybe going to grad school.

My best friend, who seems to always be on my same developmental path, recently bought me a book as a gift (we are close enough that a used Amazon book delivered to my home still counts as a gift). The book was “Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood”…”what matters, what works, what’s next”. It is about women between age 40 and 50 who are getting a second wind, who are redefining their lives and goals and ambitions. Who are learning to let their kids pursue their own lives and goals and who are giving up the need to always be involved and needed by children who now want independence. Women who are beginning a new journey.

I see lots of them now- going back to school to pursue career changes, giving up long-time careers and positions of status to do what they find more fulfilling, moving to other parts of the country. A middle-aged accomplished biochemist I know recently quit her job, backpacked the Appalachian Trail for 6 months and then created her own gourmet cooking business. I read of another woman and her husband my age who left careers to start a bed and breakfast in Alaska. Another cancer patient I know left her career in management to provide support services for cancer patients…..she has had recurrences and has been in treatment for the past 7 years and is living with and in spite of cancer.

I want to combine this time of my life with my new hard-earned cancer perspectives to do something more, to do something meaningful, to do something new.

I know I may not be guaranteed the time to reach all of my new goals, but
I am going to begin my new journey anyway.

Because really, the journey IS the destination.