Cancer sufferers should avoid alternative treatments: US expert

|     James Kon     |

CANCER patients should avoid going for alternative treatments the effectiveness of which had not been proven, an expert from the United States advised.

Head of the Cancer Center at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, United States (US) Professor Jan Buckner was responding to a question raised at a press conference on Tuesday at the Pantai Jerudong Specialist Centre about patients diagnosed with cancer but seeking alternative treatment instead.

“Unfortunately, there is no evidence that alternative treatments have any benefit,” said Professor Buckner, who is visiting Brunei Darussalam to take a closer look at the country’s health system and infrastructure.

“At Mayo Clinic, we have pursued research into alternative medicine to [find out] whether they are truly helpful. Throughout the years, we have researched a number of alternative therapies. To date we haven’t found any that actually improved the outcome.”

Mayo Clinic, ranked the number one hospital in the US in the 2018-2019 US News and World Report and has maintained its top position for the last 27 years, has also carried out a series of research work on the herbal approach to cancer treatment.

Head of the Cancer Centre at the prestigious Mayo Clinic, Rochester, United States (US) Professor Jan Buckner. – JAMES KON

“We did find some herbal approaches that may improve the symptoms of the diseases,” Professor Buckner said of their studies. “For example we did a clinical trial on ginseng. Half the patients with fatigue related to cancer received placebos, while the other half were given ginseng, and [the treatment was then rotated among the group].

It did appear that patients who received ginseng were less fatigued than the ones who received the placebo.”

Professor Buckner stressed that it is important for proper research to be done on the so-called alternative treatments to really determine their efficacy. Casually going for them just based on people’s opinions is dangerous.

He noted that there are many substances sold over-the-counter that allegedly boost the immune system, but are usually considered food additives.

Using the US as an example, he said, “Food additives in the country are subject to very lax regulatory control, meaning the manufacturer is not required to prove what they say is contained in the bottle, so we don’t know what we are getting. Manufacturers are also not required to do any research on the benefits [of the product] in terms of the treatment of disease.”

Professor Buckner also spoke about the standard treatments for cancer.

One of these is immunotherapy, which Buckner said is about teaching an individual’s own immune system to recognise and kill the cancer.

“There are many types of immunotherapy. There are medicines that can help the body’s own immune system to more effectively attack cancer cells,” he said. “There are vaccinations that can also prime the immune system to recognise the cancer to be killed, and the person’s own cell can be removed to be engineered to be more active and infused back to the body to kill the cancer.”

“Another cancer treatment is chemotherapy. This refers to a large group of drugs that attack the cancer cell in many ways,” he said.

“The advantage of chemotherapy is that the drugs travel throughout the entire body and can destroy the cancer cells no matter where they are in the body. In the US there are more than 200 separate drugs that are used to treat cancers. And each cancer requires a different drug or combination of drugs.”

Replying to a question about breakthroughs in cures for cancer, Buckner said, “Over the last 25 years in the US, there has been a steady increase in the number of people diagnosed with cancer and live for at least five years.

“A single cure for every cancer is very unlikely. However as we learn more about cancer treatment, we realise that it is necessary to individualise the diagnosis and cure for the diseases. With this method, treatment and benefits continue to improve.

“Currently more than two-thirds of patients will survive five years or longer from the diagnosis of cancer.”

He iterated that the diagnosis of cancer is the most important part in its treatment and cure, citing a pioneer of American medicine Sir William Olser’s famous quote, “There is only three important things in medicine – diagnose, diagnose and diagnose”.

“We are learning that brain cancer and other cancers are much more variable than previously thought,” he said.

“One of the major advancements in brain cancer treatment in the last decade has been the change in molecular diagnosis, in other words, taking the brain tumour and looking at the genes that are abnormal in the brain cancer to predict [disease] outcomes and to develop specific treatments relating to molecular diagnosis.”

Also participating at the press conference were Pantai Jerudong Specialist Centre (PJSC) Executive Director Dr Haji Mazrul Adimin bin Haji Awang Besar and PJSC Medical Director-cum-Director at the The Brunei Cancer Centre (TBCC) Dato Seri Laila Jasa Dr Babu Sukumaran.