I was really, really lucky. So many people in the same boat as me are no longer with us or are continuing to fight an active disease. For me, so far, I am counting myself amongst the few very lucky ones against whom there are huge odds. In May 2021, I reached the magical five years in remission mark. Why me? Why not my Facebook friend, L., several years younger than me, with exactly the same trajectory and progression of the disease? Why did I “beat” the one in ten chance of five year-year survival, and she did not? Was it because I included functional integrative medicine in my struggle? Maybe yes, maybe no.
I have no answer to these questions. I don’t even think doctors have an answer to this. And yet, so many fellow patients and survivors ask me, how did you do it? How did you manage to beat -so far – metastatic colorectal cancer?
We are all different and we all have different outcomes. This post is not meant to advocate for one or another approach. I merely want to explain what I did and how it brought me to the point I am at now. You asked, so let’s get to it!
What Is Functional Integrative Medicine?
There are many terms floating around such as “functional”, “integrative”, “complementary”, “alternative” to describe the medical approaches that are different or go beyond mainstream medical care. Let’s untangle the confusion.
The Distinction Between Complementary and Alternative Medicine
These two terms are often lumped together as CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) but they refer to two very different approaches to medical care.
In the case of cancer, the difference is fundamental. If a patient ends up deciding to forgo all mainstream or traditional intervention such as radiation and/or chemotherapy and opts to use only non-traditional approaches, this is alternative medicine.
If, however, the patient decides to complement his or her traditional treatment with non-traditional modalities such as nutritional changes, acupuncture, supplementation, energy healing, etc., then he or she partakes in complementary medicine.
In other words:
- If a non-conventional approach is used in place of traditional medicine, it’s considered alternative.
- If a non-conventional modalities are used together with traditional medical interventions, it’s considered complementary.
Where Does Functional and Integrative Medicine Fit In?
The terms “functional” and “integrative” are often used interchangeably. However, there is a small distinction.
Functional medicine resembles what is sometimes called naturopathic medicine (as opposed to allopathic medicine which is conventional medicine). Naturopathic doctors complement traditional medical interventions with non-traditional approaches to cancer with the goal to improve quality of life, manage side effects, help speed recovery, prevent a recurrence, and provide education for a healthy lifestyle.
Naturopathic or Functional Oncology
In the field of oncology, the functional approach differs from conventional oncology to a large degree.
Mainstream Western oncology is mostly concerned with eradicating the disease by targeting the tumors themselves (via surgery, chemo, and/or radiation) and preventing metastasis by attacking the cancer cells that might be still present in the bloodstream or elsewhere in the body. The medical research has done amazing work in figuring out how to do that and should be commended for it.
However, the conventional approach often misses the mark when it comes to addressing the underlying causes for cancer’s occurrence in the first place – lifestyle, stress level, nutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, inflammation, pollution, and more.
This is where functional medicine has lots to offer.
Central to the practice of functional medicine is an examination of the core clinical imbalances that underlie various disease conditions. Those imbalances arise as environmental inputs such as diet, nutrients (including air and water), exercise, and trauma processed by body, mind, and spirit through a unique set of genetic predispositions, attitudes, and beliefs.Integrative Cancer Care
Integrative medicine is based on the premise that there are complex interactions between all the systems of the body. Even though the tumor is located in one part of the body, all other body systems might be affected and/or might have been contributing factors to cancer’s development and progression.
Integrative health brings conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. Integrative health also emphasizes multimodal interventions, which are two or more interventions such as conventional medicine, lifestyle changes, physical rehabilitation, psychotherapy, and complementary health approaches in various combinations, with an emphasis on treating the whole person rather than, for example, one organ system.National Institutes for Health
In my view – as a patient – it should be a no-brainer to approach a complex disease such as cancer with a complex approach. Functional integrative medicine can do that by addressing the actual disease but also the root causes for it. And, by extension, such an approach, seems to me, offers higher chances of a successful recovery and reoccurrence prevention. Integrated oncology – or integrative oncology – could be the “moon-shot” in the fight against cancer that Joe Biden has been talking about.
Here is a useful image explaining the areas that each – conventional, functional, and integrative approach might involve:
My Own Experience with Integrated Oncology
I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, stage 3 B, in November 2014. In the beginning, the shock of the diagnosis at the still-tender age of mid-forties, with young children at home, was so overwhelming, I had no idea where to even begin the search for help.
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Initially, I only saw a radiation oncologist and a colorectal surgeon, as it was clear that the first step must be the excision of the tumor from my body. Before the surgery, the tumor was to be radiated in the hope of shrinkage and better margins at the removal site.
I remember asking my medical team about things like diet and vitamins or supplements I should be taking, but I was met with only blank stares. To them, even though they were an excellent team, the important part was that one that their specialty covered. Nuke the tumor, then cut it out.
I was plagued with questions about where did I go wrong and how did I get cancer in the first place. Apparently, it is relatively common for patients to blame themselves for having done something to deserve the illness. I smoked in the past, but I quit some ten years prior to the diagnosis. I ate lots of meat and potatoes, but for the three years prior to the diagnosis, I was fully vegan. I drank alcohol, sometimes a lot, during my college years and later. I stressed a lot, and would even more once diagnosed. I was in Eastern Europe – suntanning outside – when Chernobyl happened.
Looking back now, I realize that my questioning was basically a cry for help in finding a good functional medicine practitioner who could guide me on the journey back to vibrant health. I was ready to implement any necessary changes, but I had not the faintest idea of how to start.
After some consults with Dr. Google, I learned that there are ways to complement traditional medical approaches to better the odds of winning this fight for my life that was ahead of me. I knew instinctively that I would not go the alternative route. I was too scared to forgo what traditional medicine had to offer and I did not want to make the mistake that people like Steven Jobs made.
However, I was very much interested in adding modalities that would help me get on the track to better health. I knew that going through the mainstream treatments will require lots of strength and perseverance, and I was realizing that dietary and other holistic modalities can be of tremendous help.
This image from the National Institutes of Health explains the different complementary modalities that might be used by a functional or integrative oncology team.
Holistic Approach to Cancer
I found a local naturopathic doctor who specialized in integrative oncology. I was truly amazed at how different a visit to him was from the standard medical visit. It was clear even from the initial questionnaire, that this doctor did not see me as my tumor with some flesh and skin around it, but instead as a whole person that needed healing badly.
Every subsequent visit was geared toward improving my quality of life and managing side effects during the active treatment, and helping with recovery, preventing recurrence, and offering helpful tips for a healthy lifestyle afterward.
Here are the elements of care that my naturopathic doctor was focused on:
There were a few attempts to find the best diet for my needs at the time of treatment and later. My functional doctor was basing all his recommendations on the most current research and according to it, the best approach for the treatment of colorectal cancer specifically was the Keto diet. I tried it for several months and felt fine, but I was losing a lot of weight during that active treatment time. Coupled with the Keto diet, I was pretty soon very emaciated and weak, too weak in fact, to start chemo.
I was also very torn inside – which was causing additional stress – about not eating enough plant-based food while on the Keto diet. Somehow my body was telling me that this is not right for me, at least not at that time.
This called for a change of approach, and my doctor was very responsive to my concerns. We settled on a plant-based, Mediterranean type of eating. I was happy to be able to include many more fruits and veggies and I stopped losing weight and became stronger and stronger.
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My naturopath literally prescribed 30 minutes of daily meditation at every visit I had with him. I had to admit to him that it was not easy for me to start meditating, being a high-strung person in general and even more of a worrier and busy-mind type now with the disease on my mind almost constantly. He understood but continued to prescribe the daily meditation, guiding me through a plethora of books about meditating and online sources so that eventually even I did become a meditating type.
What was amazing about this approach is that nobody up to this point even mentioned the role of stress in disease formation and progression. Only when discussing the entire person is this connection brought to the surface.
Related to stress levels was my insomnia which the functional doctor did not want to treat with sleeping pills but rather with a mindful approach to relaxation, winding-down techniques, medicinal cannabis, limiting blue light exposure, and supplements such as Melatonin, GABA, and Tryptophan.
This doctor was also always reminding me of the importance of the physical activity to the success of my healing and recovery. Even right after my surgery, I was encouraged to take short walks, and later to move to yoga and other low-impact activities before moving on to more strenuous aerobic exercise.
Another part of the recommended physical approach was a number of complementary modalities such as massage, reflexology (for the chemo-induced neuropathy), and acupuncture (for sleep and neuropathy).
Lastly, my functional medicine practitioner was able to prescribe a correct kind and dose of supplements that are scientifically proven to assist in healing, recovery, and mitigating side effects from the conventional therapy.
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Because everyone is different, I will not specifically write which supplements I was prescribed. Suffice to say that they were all tailored to the specific chapters of my healing journey.
- during radiation – I was taking supplements that were helping mitigate the side effects such as burns and diarrhea
- prior to surgery – I was prescribed supplements that would optimize my body to respond well to the surgery and to minimize the possibility of cancer spread during the operation.
- after the surgery – I was taking herbs and supplements to speed up the healing to increase my immune response
- during chemo – the supplements were geared toward strengthening the body to withstand the systemic assault of the chemo, while at the same time not interfering with what the chemo was designed to do to the cancer cells
- after chemo – I was taking minerals and herbs such as green tea and curcumin to prevent reoccurrence by fighting inflammation and preventing angiogenesis
- in remission – I’m continuing to take supplements to strengthen my entire system and to make by body inhospitable to cancer
My doctor was willing to discuss all the vitamins, herbs, and other botanicals with me and would always have research articles to back up the claims of their efficacy (he knew I was a research nerd myself so we would geek out on these).
Importantly, I would always run the lists of supplements I got from my naturopath with my leading oncologist to get his approval. In all but one instance, I was given an OK to use the supplements. The one occasion involved a supplement that might have been contradicting what the chemo was supposed to do. This proved to me two points.
One, I was reassured that my naturopath was very knowledgeable about supplementation and was not pushing some quack medicine.
Two, I was convinced that combining the mainstream and the functional medicine was the right choice on my part, as there was no conflict, but instead a great potential for cooperation.
I am not advocating for anyone to take the same path as I did. I am merely providing the example of my “miracle” – and it really is when I think back, as I was given 1 in 10 chance of being here right now – to illustrate the potential for good when integrating mainstream and functional approaches in the fight against cancer, and really any disease at all.
I hope you will be healthy and never have to use this information, but if you do, I hope you will find it useful. Do not hesitate to ask me for clarification about this topic or any part of my journey. Until then, stay healthy and strong my friend!