Open Mind & Open Heart Are Essential in Caring for People with Cancer

“We don’t know we live in a box until something happens that shakes us out of the box,” says Isaac Eliaz, MD, LAc, Director of the Amitabha Clinic, Sebastopol, CA. For many people—roughly 1.4 million Americans annually—that box shaking event will be a diagnosis of cancer.

“Cancer presents a real opportunity for change. Everything we hold to is suddenly shaken,” said Dr. Eliaz, a pioneer in integrating western biomedical science and traditional Asian medical practice, and who specializes in working with people who have cancer and other serious, life-threatening diseases.

He believes primary care doctors have a vital role to play in helping patients with cancer, even if they are not directly involved in treatment of the cancer itself. “You still have the one-on-one direct connections with patients. That’s so important in cancer care, and something oncologists really don’t have.” He added that primary care doctors are not as firmly wedded to particular theories about cancer or specific modalities as are cancer specialists.

“An open mind and an open heart are both very important. When dealing with life-threatening illnesses, strive to be unbiased conceptually. The real skill is to be open and fluid, and light on your feet, so you can see what this particular patient needs at this particular time. It is about what patients need, not what the theories say.”

Contemplating Impermanence

Cancer implies death, which is the reason a cancer diagnosis is so frightening. Unfortunately, says Dr. Eliaz, “people put so much energy into their fear of death that they’re completely exhausted by the time they even start treatment.”

Physicians, particularly oncologists, may unwittingly make matters worse by viewing death as a failure or an insult, something to be fought at all costs. That telegraphs a message to patients that death is unnatural and inherently awful, which only reinforces the fear and isolation. Adding to the fear is all the oblique terminology about tumors with scary sounding names that must be urgently attacked with complex chemo regimens and radiation “barrages.”

While you should not sugar-coat the truth about a patient’s condition, it is equally important not to scare the life out of them. Doctors often end up projecting their own fears about death onto their patients.

“To truly be able to hold a healing space for a cancer patient, a doctor has to take time to contemplate his or her own impermanence. We die the way we live. Our deaths reflect our lives. So we need to really confront our own mortality, which is one thing that every person shares.”

As an exercise toward this, he recommends making a regular practice of sitting quietly and visualizing all the different possible types of deaths, and to visualize oneself in each of them. It is also helpful to spend time with people who are dying, and to experience the process. “We need to cultivate an appreciation for the awesomeness of death.”

For many cancer patients, whether treatments are ultimately successful or not, the brush with mortality proves transformative. Priorities change, hearts open, long-held emotional pains are released, interpersonal issues are finally healed.

Too often, doctors focus on the physical aspects of healing—tumor markers and cell counts, CTs and recurrence rates—and miss opportunities to help patients in these other domains of soul and spirit. Fixating on statistical survival averages or other “hard facts” that may be true on a population basis but false in an individual case, can be quite debilitating to a patient on many levels.

“Don’t stand in the way of their miracles. Don’t sit there in your white coat, behind your desk with all your diplomas. Create a sense of one-on-one human connection, and all sorts of unexpected possibilities might open up.”

One Step Ahead of the Cancer

All this being said, primary care doctors should do all that they can to facilitate treatment of cancer, utilizing or steering patients toward the best tools available from all the different medical disciplines.

Dr. Eliaz has spent years studying traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and western botanical medicine. EcoNugenics, a company he founded, is committed to producing high-quality, research-supported botanical and nutraceutical products (www.econugenics.com).

One such product, called Prostacaid, combines multiple vitamins, botanicals and medicinal mushrooms that each have specific effects on hormonal balance, cellular protection, and immune system function. The formula is designed for patients with prostate cancer, and includes Vitamin C and Vitamin D3, zinc and selenium, as well as turmeric root extract, quercetin, saw palmetto, a highly concentrated Scutallaria (Skullcap) extract and Di-indolyl methane (DIM), a compound in cruciferous vegetables that regulates cell growth and proliferation.

The mushrooms in the formula, Phellinus linteus, Ganoderma lucidium, and Coriolus versicolor, all known to be immunostimulatory, are cultivated specifically for EcoNugenics by USDA Certified Organic growers. 

A preliminary study from Columbia University’s Center for Holistic Urology showed that the formula had inhibitory effects on hormone-dependent and independent prostate cancer cells. Research on Prostacaid is just beginning.

Another of the company’s products, PectaSol (Modified Citrus Pectin) can slow progression of prostate cancer. The study involved 12 men treated at the Prostate Cancer Research Institute by Drs. Stephen Strum and Mark Scholz (www.prostate-cancer.org). The men were treated with 15 g/day (in three divided doses). Nine of the 12 showed a slowing of Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) progression.  Two other small trials showed similar findings. In vitro work by the Columbia group showed that PectaSol is cytotoxic in prostate cancer cells, both the androgen-dependent and androgen-independent types.

Dr. Strum said he recommends modified citrus pectin, “to patients who have a high risk of recurrence…after any primary treatment. I also recommend it for those who have shown a slow, persistent rise of PSA consistent with recurrence.”

Dr. Eliaz said he is a strong believer in multimodal approaches to cancer treatment. “One of the basic rules is, you want to be one step ahead of the cancer. You always want to change things up. When something’s working, switch to something else in a carefully timed way. You don’t want the cancer to adapt.”

Do all you can to help patients rid themselves of cancer, and collaborate with oncologists whenever possible. At the same time, accept that some people with cancer will die from it, despite everyone’s best medical efforts. But this does not preclude healing on the emotional, social and spiritual levels.

“Keep in mind a person’s death is not necessarily a “failure,” and it is certainly not a reason to discard a person as a person.”