In the era of celebrity-inspired medical treatments, alternative medicine is an easy punching bag. I work in the medical field, and I am familiar with the literature that dismisses natural and holistic medicine outright, without considering why patients might turn to it for healing.
But I have also witnessed how these approaches affected my own family members, and observing how that story unfolded has changed both how I understand the appeal of these treatments and how they fit into the larger narrative arc of a patient’s life.
Like most people, I was fairly skeptical of alternative treatments until one of my family members sought them out. She was a nonsmoker, so it came as a shock when the local doctor had no answer for her nagging cough and instead sent her to an oncologist for a battery of tests. After weeks of worrying, she finally received the news she had been dreading: stage-four lung cancer.
She decided immediately that she would fight to stay alive, but on her own terms. As a longtime devotee of natural approaches to healing, she vowed that cancer would not change the way she lived her life. Conventional treatment, with its mix of dangerous radiation, chemicals, and debilitating side effects was not an option for her.
Her search for a holistic approach to treatment took her from the Hospital Santa Monica in Rosarito, Mexico to a naturopathic practitioner in the mountains of North Carolina. She received intravenous infusions of vitamins, glucose, and hydrogen peroxide, spent hours in an ozone sauna, and sampled a variety of nutritional supplements. Her search for a natural cure would end after the cancer spread to her brain, for which she received traditional chemotherapy and radiation as her life’s story came to a close.
Some may think it is unfortunate that patients like her would seek conventional treatment only as a last resort, if at all. They think these patients have chosen means that cannot achieve their goals of prolonging life or restoring health. After all, some cancers respond very well to treatment. Remission can last for years, even decades.
Why, then, would someone choose hydrogen peroxide infusions and herbal supplements over gemcitabine and cisplatin? Understanding a patient’s story can help us make sense of this decision.
As this story shows, patients may turn to alternative medicine – or no medicine at all – for a variety of reasons, including lack of trust in medicine, fear of disfiguring treatment effects, belief in natural healing modalities, and desire for more holistic healthcare. Whatever factors may influence a patient’s treatment choices, clinicians have a unique opportunity in the face of a devastating diagnosis to help patients write their next chapter.
Like my loved one, each patient is the author of her own narrative. Clinicians should be wary of the impulse to dismiss the desire for natural healing outright. Instead, they should view conversations with patients as opportunities to understand their values and how their experience of illness fits into the story of their life.