By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP
The Treatment of Cancer with Chinese Medicine
Because of the way that Chinese medicine looks at health and the human body, the treatments for any disease in Chinese medicine are varied and complex. In Chinese medicine, a practitioner is not treating cancer, they are treating YOUR cancer. And they are not in effect treating the cancer, they are treating you. In essence, Chinese medicine works to treat the person, not the disease. And although this might sound like a nice tagline, it is the way Chinese medicine works, and why it is so effective.
When a patient comes in with a diagnosis from a Western doctor of cancer, the first thing we do, is to look at what is happening in the body and what is causing the cancer. We do not just treat the cancer, because if you treat the cancer without fully understanding why it has occurred in the first place, then even if you do manage to get rid of the cancer, the factors that created it are still present and the cancer will return. This is the reason why looking at absolutely everything about a persons health, be it physical, emotional and especially their lifestyle is integral to successfully treating any disease in Chinese medicine. The cancer is the symptom, so we must, as practitioners, find the root.
There are literally an infinite amount of factors that contribute to diseases, especially one as complex as cancer, so the search for the cause or, more likely, causes is not an easy task. Many factors are things I wrote about previously in this article – nutrition, toxins, unresolved or unexpressed emotions, the quality of our water, stress, the list goes on. This vast ocean of potential causes is the reason why the practitioner of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) does such a thorough intake and asks many questions at each session, trying to collect as much information as possible. Something I always tell my patients when we are talking is that they should tell me everything, no matter how silly or seemingly irrelevant it may seem, because in my experience, everything is significant and is another piece of the puzzle that I am trying to create for each patient to get to the bottom of their present condition.
As a side note, this is why many times patients will ask why, if they have come in for sleep problems, would I be asking about their digestion or emotional state? I tell them it is all connected and we do not draw distinctions in a holistic model of medicine. It is not the reductionist model of allopathic or Western medicine that likes to reduce the body into parts, focussing on each if it breaks down. In a holistic system, every part functions synergistically with all the others, they cannot function in isolation. Every part affects every other part. This is the reason that we need a picture of the whole to determine what is going on, and why it works so well, because treatments are tailored to the individual. Cancer can arise from a myriad of reasons, so we need to understand why the cancer has manifested, correct those imbalances and the body will readjust to a healthy balance and the cancer should disappear. Chinese medicine believes in the body’s powerful and innate healing abilities, so when we are diagnosing we must ask ourselves: “what it is that is blocking the healing process? Why is the healing not being allowed to occur?” Chinese medicine also believes that if the body has everything it needs, then health and certainly healing will be the result. Disease is just the body’s way of telling us that something is missing, and needs attention. This is why listening to your body is also so important for your health. Your body will always tell you when things are not right. At the beginning when the imbalance is only minor, it may only be a whisper, which gradually moves to a full blown yell by the time we get to a very severe imbalance which is what we see in cases like cancer. Learning to listen to the subtle communications of your body is such a good way to be able to correct things before they become more serious and practice what Chinese medicine is all about – preventative medicine.
Self Love and Loving Kindness
One of the biggest things that practicing Chinese medicine has taught me has not been about medicine at all. It has been about the pain and the immense struggles that human beings go through in life, and often, on a daily basis. The things that I have heard from my patients over the years about what they have been through have been humbling to say the least. As I am a highly sensitive person who can strongly feel what others are feeling simply by being in the room with them, this information, at least at first, was very difficult to process. Hearing stories of such pain and suffering took a toll emotionally and I quickly had to learn to manage those feelings so that I would not be consumed by them (because they could also make me sick!). This also taught me something very valuable. That I could never, ever judge someone from what they were projecting on the outside, because I realized that I had no idea what was going on in their life and what struggles they were facing. It gave me enormous empathy for people, especially ones who were rude or otherwise unpleasant to be around. It also made me realize why people get sick as I began to see a correlation with these struggles and pain, and the kinds of illnesses that people develop. Many people are suffering alone because they feel they have to. Many people have no outlet for such problems or simply do not want to burden others. I think this is what we desperately need from each other. We need each others kindness, love and understanding. We need to really listen to each other and not just wait for our turn to speak.
The other part of this is that I think we need to be kinder to ourselves. To look at any TV reality show or movie you would think this was insane. From what we see in the media, it seems that we are a hedonistic bunch, very capable of looking after ourselves, and only ourselves, and that is certainly the culture we are living in these days. It feeds this kind of narcissism. But, in my experience, overwhelmingly, people are working hard, sleeping less, and struggling more. It seems to be getting harder, certainly in the last generation or two, to get ahead and be able to live a simple life and provide for our families. Gone are the days when someone could have the same job working at the same company for their entire lives or that a married couple could survive, and even thrive on the salary of one working person. Children now leave school saddled with so much debt that they cannot afford to leave home, and things like social security are something my generation and the ones after will never see. It is these things, these stresses in our lives that contribute to disease. We must all have hope. We must all believe that we can achieve our dreams and make a life for ourselves if we are smart and work towards that goal.
Self love is a hard thing for a lot of people, and it is something I talk to a lot of my patients about. We are all energetic beings, and when we are so stressed and exhausted by modern life, it is difficult to find the time to take proper care of ourselves. And this is so important for our health. Having the intention of being kind to ourselves, eating well, spending time with our friends and people we love, doing things that feed us energetically and make us happy are just as important to health as herbs and acupuncture. And this goes back to listening. If you have had a particularly stressful day at work, or have had a particularly negative interaction with a stranger on the way home, recognize how it is making you feel and take the time to cleanse that energy and feed yourself to build yourself up again. Take a walk in the park and breathe deeply the cool, clean air. Have a hot bath and read that book that you have been meaning to start for weeks. Make yourself something delicious and eat it mindfully, really savouring it. These are the things that recharge batteries and let your body and psyche know that you love it and are taking care of it. In the cases of cancer that I have treated and indeed in so many of the illnesses that I treat, there is a definite connection to this loss of self love and care. Think of these personal acts of kindness as medicine of prevention. It is your health insurance policy, a way to make sure you never get sick.
In conclusion, when it comes to a disease as complex as cancer, there are many factors at play both in its development and treatment. In a holistic system like Chinese medicine, it is not the cancer that is important, it is determining why the cancer has manifested and making corrections necessary so that the cancer is both able to resolve itself, as well as not be recreated in the future. In contrast, in a Western model of medicine, giving chemotherapy or radiation without any investigation to the causes, the factors at play in the persons life, no nutritional counseling, no inquiry to the persons emotional life might lead to a temporary remission of the present cancer, but it will no doubt return as the circumstances that created it are still present. This is not to say that Western medicine does not have its benefits, not at all. I only say that the approach to healing is different, and in my opinion, by not looking at the system as a whole, there is so much that is missing. Treating cancer, like any other disease is a delicate balance of searching for the reasons that it has manifested, dealing with them thoroughly especially any emotional ones, rebalancing the system and giving the body, mind and spirit everything it needs to thrive allowing us to regain our health so we can be healthy, happy human beings.