LOS ANGELES—For the wealthy, integrative medicine (also known as “complementary and alternative medicine” or CAM) for cancer treatment has been available for decades in Asia, the Caribbean, and Europe. For most Americans, however, the costs of travel and lodging are prohibitive.
Whereas Western medicine focuses on treating the illness, an integrative approach to health care focuses on treating the whole person, using naturopathic medicine, acupuncture, nutrition, massage, chiropractic, hypnotherapy, and mind-body therapies.
In the U.S., integrative cancer treatment has not been readily available until recent years because various state laws have limited cancer treatments to traditional medical approaches in hospital and clinical settings.
A major obstacle to integrative cancer treatment has been that trained medical practitioners in various alternative modalities are not licensed to practice under the state medical system.
When patients seeking alternative cancer treatment abroad started reporting positive results, word spread around, and the number of people seeking complementary and alternative treatments increased.
In California, where integrative treatment for cancer is currently not allowed, patients are traveling out of state and bearing the financial burden to find the treatment they seek. States bordering California—Nevada and Arizona—and elsewhere where integrative treatment is allowed, are seeing an increasing number of Californians.
“Two-thirds of our patients come from other states,” said Dr. Timothy Birdsall, vice president of Integrative Medicine and chief medical information officer at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. CTCA runs several hospitals and clinics that offer integrative treatment of cancer across the United States, including in Seattle, Wash., and Goodyear, Ariz.
According to Dr. Birdsall, a study CTCA conducted found that “a large number [of patients] were using complementary treatments already. However, the patients weren’t telling their primary physician they were doing so.”
There is a risk when patients do not tell their physician about the alternative types of treatments they are using.
“Even though each of the complementary treatments has its place in treating a cancer patient, under certain circumstances, some of these other treatments, for example, large doses of vitamins in one case, negated the chemotherapy,” Birdsall said.
Medical Brain Drain
Patients aren’t the only ones looking beyond state borders. Frustrated physicians are as well. Dr. Len Saputo, who specializes in internal medicine and is a founder of Health Medicine Center, an integrative medicine center located in Walnut Creek, Calif., says medical brain drain is occurring.
“Many California physicians have been frustrated, and some have even relocated to more-user-friendly states because under California Public Health law, it is a felony to use CAM treatments for cancer even when mainstream therapies have failed, have been abandoned, and patients [have been] sent home to die,” Dr. Saputo said.
More states continue to approve integrated cancer treatment. However, despite a long tradition of cutting-edge research in many disciplines, California has moved more slowly.
California Citizens for Health Freedom (CCHF), an advocacy group and watchdog, has been actively focused on making integrative medicine accessible to Californians. It presented the bill to license naturopaths and presented a successful bill in 2004 to legalize non-cancer medical integrative treatment.
The bill is also meant to protect physicians and naturopathic doctors who want to use integrative medicine to treat cancer. Currently, they are limited to using chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, or they risk losing their medical license, according to CCHF.
This year, CCHF proposed a bill to allow integrative treatment for cancer patients. CCHF President Frank Cuny said: “Californians deserve a more compassionate treatment environment that meets their needs as a whole person.
“This will also make it possible for Californians in our current economy to get this treatment in California, without having to travel to other states. Doctors will also have more treatment options, not available previously.”
Interest in complementary and alternative medicine at the federal level started about 20 years ago. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a Complementary and Alternative Medicine section as early as 1992 and established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in October 1998.The NIH has funded research grants amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars to help determine the effectiveness of the integrative approach to health care.