Dr Elizabeth Thompson discusses how integrated care can make all the difference to cancer patients

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can be a  very frightening experience and many people remember the exact moment  of hearing this difficult news. The experience can cause shock and  anxiety and the feeling that one’s life is spiralling out of control.  The person can often feel like their body has let them down by  developing such a serious ill­ness and they can lose confidence in  themselves and their future. There is often a desire to look more deeply  into their health in general and to find mean­ing in their lives as a  whole.Many supportive approaches such as psychological procedures exist to  help people during this difficult time of adjusting to a  life-threatening illness. Complementary and alternative medi­cines (CAM)  can also offer an important avenue of support with an underlying  philosophy that the individual experi­ence is important and connections  that a person may make in their life and health are important. CAM also  honours the idea that the body has its own innate healing potential  which can be strength­ened in various ways. A preparation of Mistletoe  would be an example of a complementary medicine which has been shown to  stimulate the immune system and when given alongside chemotherapy and  radiotherapy can reduce fatigue and improve quality of life. 

Supportive role

A common reason for referral is for women with breast cancer  who are suff­ering side-effects of their treatments such as hot flushes  with Tamoxifen or joint pains with Arimidex. Other problem symptoms  might include anxiety, mood and sleep disturbance. This constella­tion  of symptoms associated with oestro­gen withdrawal has few in the way of  conventional treatments and HRT is now contra-indicated in women with  breast cancer as it could increase their risk of recurrence. Sometimes  women do not want to go on conventional med­ication such as  antidepressants, which is another orthodox treatment for these symptoms,  because they feel they have had enough drugs and they want to approach  it with gentler, non-pharma­ceutical approaches. We also see men with  prostate cancer, who have similar symptoms of hot flushes, sleep  distur­bance, anxiety and loss of confidence associated with their  hormonal cancer treatment.We see people coming at different points in their diagnosis. Some  patients are often coming after all their cancer treatments have been  carried out, but they are suffering from the ongoing side-effects of  their treatments. Sometimes we see people who from the moment of  diagnosis want to use homeopathy to support them through their surgery,  radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Often they can be people who have used  homeopathy regularly for themselves and their families and it is a  natural choice to continue to do so alongside conventional treatments. Sometimes it is the point of being told one has recurrent or  advancing dis­ease that might encourage someone to come and have  homeopathy and engag­ing hopefully with someone can be very important at  this time of crisis.

Alison’s story

In September 2005, Alison was diag­nosed with aggressive breast  cancer, one year after the birth of her baby boy, Owen, and the news was  totally shock­ing. Suddenly she was a disease and not a person and she  became very, very frightened and incapable of managing her life. Only  one year before, she had had extensive tests on a breast lump that  didn’t feel normal to her, but as she was breastfeeding and had  experienced a degree of mastitis, specialists at Weston Super Mare PCT  first diagnosed a per­manently blocked milk-duct. The lump was  re-checked by biopsy when Owen was one and out of the blue, Grade III  cancer was diagnosed which had by then spread to nearby lymph nodes. She  was immediately told to stop breastfeeding and urged to take a course  of coun­selling. In the space of a couple of days she was told she would  have a mastec­tomy followed by radiotherapy and months of chemotherapy.  She was also told that the treatment would mean that is was very  unlikely she would ever have any more children. 

Alison was concerned about aspects of the planned treatment. As a  violinist, she wanted to reduce any chance of lym­phodema as permanently  swollen arms would have made it difficult to play again. She  transferred to Frenchay Hospital where Simon Cawthorn had an excellent  track record for avoiding lymphodema, as well as an excellent  rep­utation as a breast care surgeon. She had surgery within weeks. She attended a three-day course at Penny Brohn Cancer Care before undergoing chemotherapy treatment. This took nine months, during which she felt  very sick, was crushingly tired and lost her hair. Her days on retreat  had helped her calm down and look at herself more objectively. Always an  open-minded per­son, she was now determined to use everything and  anything to get better. So when her oncologist Dr Braybrook suggested  homeopathy, she agreed to go to the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital.

Homeopathic care

Alison was referred to the Comple­mentary Cancer Care Service via  her oncologist and began a course of treat­ment to help with the  side-effects of chemotherapy, to help her come to terms with her  condition and to try and ensure no relapse of the cancer.“If I had to single out one comple­mentary treatment that I really  felt helped me the most,” comments Alison, “it would be homeopathy.” Alison also has regular acupuncture,  takes Chinese herbs, osteopathy and massage to keep her arms mobile and  has changed her diet in line with advice from the Penny Brohn Centre, so  that now she eats an almost vegan diet, avoiding meat and dairy  products. There are still difficult moments: Alison was put on a drug which  brought about an early menopause, including all its symptoms. She said  it “made me feel very tired and old! – older than my years, dragged down  and heavy” but a repeat of her homeopathic remedy in a differ­ent  potency took those symptoms away. Alison recognises how far she has travelled. “When I was diagnosed I  was one person. I know that I left that per­son behind when I started on  my jour­ney to recovery. Homeopathy played a huge part in that. I was  able to find out what really mattered in life.” Alison adds, “I am really angry about the way some of the press  ridicules home­opathy. Choosing your treatment is a per­sonal thing and  the right kind of treatment is different for different sorts of people,  so different treatments need to be on offer so that you can make that  choice. All I know is without my wonderful son, the love and support of  my family and friends and the homeopathic treatment, I don’t think I  could have done it.“My homeopathic remedy is like my crutch – I seriously feel as if I  can’t live without it". 

Prescribing for Alison

There is always an uncertainty when prescribing homeopathic  medicines par­ticularly when we are trying to individ­ualise remedies.  Along with Mistletoe injections, I also prescribed X-ray 30c on the  morning of radiotherapy, along with Belladonna in the afternoon, both of  which have been shown in one placebo-controlled trial to reduce the  inflam­mation of the skin and deeper tissues that is caused with  radiotherapy. The remedy that really seemed to create the turning point for Alison, was Stannum muriaticum. This is a remedy from the mineral kingdom and  is a salt of tin. We think of tin as rather a dull metal but it is part  of the silver series which we associate with people who are musicians,  talented in performance and creative by nature. In order to gain  accuracy with our prescribing we are learning to understand the mineral  kingdom in terms of the structure of the Periodic Table: which row does  someone need a medicine from and which column is most suitable? Stannum  is found in the silver series or row 5 of the Periodic Table in column  14 and Stannum patients can feel a lot of anxiety around performance as  if they are somehow failing. Someone who needs Stannum has an inner  experience that their performance is no longer admired and they can feel  discarded and on the sidelines. Alison had said: “I am a performer and I  like to perform. I am a violinist but I did lose a lot of confidence. I  was so anxious, I would vomit prior to a performance.” My initial remedy Kali arsenicosum did help with the nausea but her  anxi­ety over the coming months if anything got worse and when Alison  realised that she could not have any more children this was a huge grief  to her. I asked her about this and she said, “I feel crushed, I have  always managed to achieve, but I feel like God is a puppeteer. I feel I  have lost out.” This feeling, like a puppet, is also known in the inner  experience of Plumbum which again is in the same col­umn as tin but  Plumbum is found in the gold series.

There was also another element to Alison’s story which would match  the experience of the chloride – muriaticum – element, in row 3, column  17 of the Periodic Table and one of the halogen group. The chloride element has a rela­tionship with mothering and being mothered and there  can be the experi­ence to feel that one does not get the attention and  reassurance one has needed and this leads to disappointment and feelings  of being let down. When the halogen state is felt strongly it can make  one feel hot, restless and caged, with an anxious desire to escape or  get away. Both of these substances, Stannum and muriaticum relate to  physical prob­lems as well. Stannum has a relationship with cancer and  with voice problems, with a loss of voice or stammering or a sense of  weakness with the voice and hollowness in the chest with a hard, deep,  painful cough, better for holding the chest. The stomach can feel weak  and empty and there can be problems with the ovaries. Alison had a  knife-like pain in the ovary at ovulation and the silver series can  relate to the testes and the ovaries. The chloride, muriatic, element  can often have a physical rela­tionship with the sinuses and with nasal  discharge and post-nasal drip andthere can be pain in the sinuses or  tenderness in the breasts which can sometimes be related to the  menstrual cycle.Great thinkers in homeopathic practice have helped us understand  these medicines and be able to predict how an unknown remedy might  appear. Stannum muriaticum is not a well-known remedy and yet seemed to  be a good match for Alison as an individual. Nothing replaces a proving,  as often the emergent properties of a substance in nature and the  symptom picture that emerges through a proving, cannot be predicated,  but there are many remedies we would not be able to prescribe whilst  waiting for provings to be carried out. 

Cancer care

I have been offering homeopathy now for 12 years in the cancer  setting and it has always brought me great joy to help people at any  stage of their journey through this difficult illness. The joy has been  watching people get back in con­trol, manage difficult situations for  themselves and sometimes transforming entirely as an individual. Many  have described cancer as a wonderful oppor­tunity to do things  differently, to grow and learn about oneself. There is always sadness as  well as I have lost patients along the way who had become an  inspi­ration to me in my busy working day.I have learned to be flexible within this challenging area of  integration and allow people to make choices that feel right for them  and always to see home­opathy as just part of a wheel of healing  approaches that people explore and con­nect with to support them. I would like to see more integration in the  future, a greater awareness of the wisdom of the body, the part each  indi­vidual plays in their own recovery plus the role CAM has to help  empower peo­ple and adjust to living with a cancer diagnosis.

Elizabeth Thompson BAOxon MBBS MRCP  FFHom .