Day 6

Meet the brothers researching naturopathic cancer treatment

Two Ottawa brothers, a naturopath and a thoracic surgeon, have received a $3.85 million grant to research naturopathy can be used in the treatment of the cancer. Their work comes at a time when some are challenging conventional treatment methods.

Two Ottawa brothers, a naturopath and a thoracic surgeon, have received a $3.85 million grant to research naturopathy can be used in the treatment of the cancer. Their work comes at a time when some are challenging conventional treatment methods. Eleven-year-old Makayla Sault decided with her family to stop chemotherapy treatments to pursue traditional medicine. Another case where a young child opted for traditional medicine instead of chemotherapy is now in court. The hospital wants the children's aid society to intervene. Brent spoke with naturopath and executive director of Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, Dugald Seely, and his brother Andrew Seely, a thoracic surgeon, about their investigation of naturopathy in the treatment of cancer.

How common is it to have patients with a potentially terminal cancer reject conventional treatment?

Dugald Seely: I'd say it's pretty infrequent. At the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre we probably see about five, maybe, up to eight per cent of patients that are seeking a true alternative to care. The majority of our patients are adult cases. In those cases, we try to support them to incorporate a conventional approach and really to explore what benefits can be attributed from that.

That's still quite a number of people rejecting entirely traditional medicine. What does that number say to you?

​DS: I think there's a lot of fear about conventional medicine and there's a lot of misconceptions as well -- that it's all negative, it's all poison. In some cases, that's the perception. So some people just have an inherent desire to stay away from the conventional system. It is the minority, thankfully, but there are a few cases. Where there's a case of childhood leukemia, there really is no alternative and I think it's imperative that the physicians who are dealing with these families are able to communicate effectively about the benefits from conventional therapy, particularly with something like leukemia which is highly curable.

Andrew, as a physician, have you ever had a patient ask for a naturopathic treatment for cancer?

Andrew Seely: Yes, indeed. And I think that the cases of patients refusing traditional therapy when good communication has occurred are incredibly rare. But what is very common is that patients seek to do what they can to enhance traditional therapies. And really that's what we're interested in: integrating the best of naturopathic therapies with traditional approaches like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

So your research is all about finding a way to make both treatments complementary and to have some level of communication between those paths.

AS: Oh, there has to be very close communication. What we're planning is an integrative care intervention that seeks to bring the best of both worlds to address the two most important problems facing patients that are undergoing surgery for cancer; namely, adverse events that occur following surgery and cancer recurrence. Those are the two most important issues and we're evaluating if our intervention might improve both.

So you're doing your research with a large group of individuals. Who are they?

AS: The patients [involved] in the study are those with lung cancer, esophageal cancer, gastric cancer. They're patients who undergo surgical resection of those cancers followed or preceded by adjuvant chemotherapy or radiation therapy. 

You just mentioned surgery but we're talking about a complementary set of treatments as well, and some of those treatments could or might be naturopathic. So, give us some examples of what those naturopathic treatments might be.

DS: The kinds of naturopathic and integrative therapies that we're talking about are really multi-modality, full-person care. Things that would include exercise, stress reduction, targeted supplementation that may be working on the immune system, inflammation, healing pathways. 

What is the realistic expectation of just how much of a role naturopathic medicine could play in the treatment of cancer?

​DS: I think it should be incorporated right at the outset for good care for patients in terms of symptom control and things just beyond the pathology of the disease as well, it has a lot to offer from a holistic standpoint. As far as going after the cancer, itself, I think there's a lot that we can do to assist the body's innate capacity to fight the disease and not support its progression.

AS: I think principally, naturopathic therapy has its biggest role in lessening the side-effects of traditional therapies, I think that's going to be it's greatest strength. But also, I think there's the potential to improve survival by a modest amount -- but that is still, nonetheless, enormously important. We often approve chemotherapies because of a 5 per cent reduction in two year or five year mortality. Is that possible? Yes, I think it is. But, principally, I think it's going to lessen the side-effects of traditional therapies.

We are seeing a growing skepticism about conventional medicine, the anti-vaccine movement being one of the consequences of this skepticism. Do you think there's a risk that people will misinterpret the potential and the result could be dangerous?

DS: I really don't think so. I think that what people are calling for and want to do is to see an evaluation of complementary therapies in a rigorous way. And I think what's being seen in the past few decades is really a rejection of complementary therapies without adequate consideration. What I'm seeing with my patients is that people, if they're told without any real discussion that they shouldn't do anything complementary, they will choose to do so on their own and often without proper guidance.

So my recommendation is that patients are seeing someone who has good knowledge of the evidence and enough knowledge to practice safely. Many people are self-medicating by looking at the internet, are choosing their own paths, and I think that's where more potential harm is. As far as the research validating in a way that could be risky, I think it's exactly the opposite. I think we need more of this kind of research because this is what people are doing, and they're increasing that usage.