There were 24 of them — some the size of peas, the largest the size of an egg. By the time it was discovered, the cancer, which originated in his colon, had spread. His doctor gave him little hope.
Thanks to an experimental drug, he beat the cancer. But 18 months later, it was back. That’s when Burns decided to try something else — alternative treatments like immune-system boosting supplements and mind-body therapies like qigong.
“That was 14 years ago and I’m feeling great,” the 75-year-old Laurens man says. “I live day to day and give thanks for every day.” Massage, biofeedback, tai chi, hypnosis, herbal supplements, reiki — call it alternative, complementary or the latest moniker — integrative — medicine, it’s growing in popularity.
More and more conventional practitioners are even offering some integrative techniques. About one in four Americans had used some kind of non-conventional therapy, ranging from acupuncture to yoga, in 2007, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is collecting new data this year.
Natural products were used most, the center reports, with more than half of adults using dietary supplements. Deep breathing, meditation, massage therapy and yoga all were on the rise. And according to a survey by Consumer Reports, people — including conventional health care practitioners — use these therapies to treat a host of conditions from headaches and other pain to insomnia, anxiety, colds, flu and digestive problems.
A different world
“There are things in the world of healing that medicine is still trying to figure out — things you just see when you actually open your eyes to this world of integrative medicine that you can’t put your fingers on,” says Dr. Nick Ulmer, family physician and vice president of clinical services at Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.“But you can see people do get better.”
At Regional’s three-year-old Center for Health and Healing, clients attend an eight-week mind-body program to learn proper breathing, meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, self-hypnosis and more to reduce stress, fatigue and pain and improve sleep and mood, says manager Hunter Mahon. And three-quarters of those who have attended reported a benefit, she says.
Nearly 100 Michelin employees have gone through the program, said Jim West, manager of employee life services for the company, which contracts with Regional to provide the service. And as reported by the employees, anger and hostility were down 54 percent, depression and anxiety were reduced by 45 percent, and fatigue had declined by 33 percent, he says. “We’re addressing health from many different angles and processes,” West says, “some traditional and some in the integrative health arena.”
Greenville psychiatrist Dr. Patrick Mullen says he’s a believer after seeing many of his patients improve using non-traditional therapies. One who was suffering from depression, for example, turned out to have a zinc deficiency and improved after taking a multivitamin containing the mineral, he says.
Another researched supplements on his own and got better after taking them. “He’d been on numerous drugs and even a course of electroshock therapy,” Mullen says. “But he put together a treatment protocol (of supplements) for himself that has worked better than anything he had taken before.”
Integrative medicine is definitely on the rise, said Terry Hall-Hines. But when she opened Creative Health two decades ago, she says she was one of the few purveyors of natural products and health services in Greenville and was considered by many as kind of a kook.
But times have changed. Her business has grown 15 percent a year since she started offering supplements and other natural products along with yoga, acupuncture, massage, stress management and more to promote healing, she says. And her services are booked three months out.
“People are getting more proactive. They’re eating more organic, taking more supplements, and exercising. And yoga places are popping up everywhere, along with tai chi and qigong, which balance the body ... so it heals itself,” she says. “Everything in the body is connected. And now, people are ready to change.”
Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, says there’s little hard evidence these therapies work and that taking mega-doses of certain vitamins can even be harmful.
The herb St. John’s Wort was touted as improving depression, for example, but when tested there was no evidence it did, he says. Most of these therapies have more of a placebo effect, he says, adding that practitioners rely more on personal testimonials than solid science.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “if you had the cure for cancer by eating tree roots, I think that would get out.” And, he adds, though some therapies may relieve pain and stress, they should not be construed as treatments for life-threatening illnesses. But Caplan adds that many conventional medicines don’t always work either and that integrative medicine does a better job of listening to and spending time with patients, which is something conventional medicine should emulate.
Mind over matter Burns says he has no doubts about the effectiveness of his alternative therapies. After diagnosing him with metastatic cancer, his doctor told him he had six months to live. So he jumped at the chance of joining a clinical trial.Though the drug fought back the cancer, its side effects were brutal and destroyed his colon, which had to be removed, he says.
While recovering from surgery, he and his wife made plans for a Caribbean vacation. And it was there, he says, by the sea in the sun that he had an epiphany. “You’ve got to get out of the moment and think about the future, tell your subconscious you’re going to be around,” he says. “That’s the key to ... make this a reality.”
When he felt the cancer was growing again, he went to his doctor and had another scan. But he also went to a reiki practitioner. Reiki is a technique whose practitioners place their hands lightly on or above the body to facilitate a healing response, according to NCCAM. “There’s a concept ... that there is a universal energy that ... can be channeled for healing purposes,” Burns explains.
“Qigong is a version of that and reiki is the Japanese version.” As he lay on a massage table, the practitioner held her hands about six inches above his body, channeling the energy, he says. He felt better immediately. “It was just phenomenal,” he says. “It was for me mind-blowing.” It was so moving he decided to study reiki himself. He even learned qigong from a Chinese master and was the subject of a healing ritual by a group of 150 practitioners, he says.
At the same time, Burns, a retired educator, researched supplements and their chemical properties. He began taking products designed to stimulate the immune system to destroy cancer cells, like L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, CoQ10 and noxylane 4, he says.
And he began eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, undergoing hypnosis and guided visualization, deep meditation and taking vitamins — up to 33 supplements a day.
He kept his doctor in the loop, but never had a conventional treatment again. And since then, he says, scan after scan has showed the spots shrinking until there was only one diffuse spot the size of a fingernail.
“Do miracles still happen? Yes, every day. But sometimes the right combination of things come to bear,” Burns says. “You tell your subconscious, this is what I want to be. And it’s the emotion and imagery that drives the healing process. I know these things can help. And there’s a difference between saying I know and I believe.”
Dr. Mark O’Rourke, Burns’ current oncologist, confirms his account of the events. “We can say it went into remission (after chemotherapy) and again ... after the relapse,” he says.
“It rarely happens that someone has spontaneous remission, but it happens. In my 30 years, I’ve encountered three or four people for whom this happened. I attribute that to their immune system being able to control the cancer.”
Why their immune systems couldn’t control the cancer to begin with, he can’t explain. “That’s the challenge and mystery of this whole field of oncology,” he says.
“With Mr. Burns, either there was something about the tumor or something about his immune system.”
Up to two-thirds of people with cancer use some sort of alternative therapy, says O’Rourke, who agrees with Caplan that there isn’t a lot of research behind much of it.
“Mr. Burns’ experience is wonderful, but it remains for me a single person’s experience,” he says. “He may be getting some benefit, although medical science has been disappointed in how few of the supplements have proven to be beneficial.”
Nonetheless, O’Rourke, who considers himself “quite receptive to integrative medicine,” says that science has determined that people who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of cancer.
And, he adds, mind-body treatments in general reduce stress, and there’s evidence that stress causes inflammation that can lead to cancer, as well as heart disease and other conditions.
So it’s plausible that stress-reducing therapies can be beneficial, he says, adding that it’s clear people feel better after reiki, acupuncture and massage.
“We don’t know everything,” says O’Rourke, who is also director of the integrative oncology and survivorship program at Greenville Hospital System.
“In general, allopathic medicine has failed to address the full range of human experience,” he adds. “We don’t pay enough attention to diet, exercise, sleep and how people feel in general. We need to be addressing the full range of human experience. Medicine needs to connect with that.”
Mullen agrees. “Why didn’t I ever get a course in nutrition (in medical school)?” he asks. “They still think of the body as a human machine. No soul, no spirit, no the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts.”
Integrative medicine tries to use whatever may be helpful, Mullen says.
What it has in common, he says, is individualization — an awareness that everybody is different. And it’s getting easier to find a doctor who uses some of these techniques today, he says, though some are closeted for fear of push-back from the establishment.
“There are so many different therapies in the world that are helpful to one, or two, or 10, or 100 people,” he says. “If you can find a doctor willing to consider lots of different things, you may find help.”
About 10 percent of Mullen’s patients are aware of alternative therapies when they come to see him. He gives the others options. “I had patients like this before, but I didn’t know how to help them,” he says. “I took the time to learn about it.”
And now he even uses some of these approaches himself. Though not yet covered by insurance, alternative therapies can be as helpful as conventional treatments, Ulmer says, pointing to a client with a back injury who was pain-free after four weeks of massage therapy.
“Do they work? Yes. Do they work well enough so commercial payers will pay? I guess not,” he says. “The outcomes are very objective. More research needs to be done and measuring outcomes will be extremely important.”
Yet some emerging research suggests that integrative therapies are effective. NIH reports that studies show massage may indeed improve health by relaxing the nervous system and reducing stress and pain hormones, thus enhancing immune function and healing.
Other studies suggest massage turns off genes that cause inflammation and is effective in reducing chronic back pain, according to NIH.
Ulmer says it’s accepted that people can lower their blood pressure, control their heart rate and manage pain using biofeedback, visual imagery and meditation.
There are simply elements of medicine that still aren’t understood, he says. “There is more to medicine than what I was taught in medical school,” he says. “Sometimes, medicine is more than a pill.”
Burns believes it was a combination of all of the treatments, including the chemotherapy, that pulled him through. “I’m not poo-pooing (conventional) medicine,” he says. “But that’s not all there is.”