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Not an alternative


Indian cancer specialists say the penchant for seeking out dubious 'alternate' treatment options for even severe cases of the disease can waste precious time.

Within three months, it grew from the size of a peanut to that of an apple. When Sheel Shah's tonsil cancer was first detected, doctors told him that he needed to treat it immediately. But the 60-year-old, on the advice of a cousin, decided to try out a swami's "sure-shot treatment for curing cancer". Sadly, as Dr JB Sharma, senior consultant medical oncology at the Delhi-based Action Cancer Hospital, says, "that ruined things for him". And the doctor often wonders, he says, how sometimes even the better educated in India, aware of the way cancer cells spread rapidly, ignore the call for quick treatment. "Why should the first few weeks after diagnosis, more often than not, be filled with rounds, not of medical doctors, but of quacks who promise alternative cancer treatments? This is tragic, because precious time is lost in the process, "he rues. 

And Indians aren't alone in hoping for such cures either. Shah's case echoes that of the world's most famous recent cancer patient, who also, rather tragically as it turned out, delayed necessary treatment to try a host of 'alternative' therapies instead - which medical practitioners generically refer to as Alternative Cancer Treatments (ACTs). Many experts are now convinced that if Steve Jobs had only stuck to the treatment options his doctors prescribed him for his pancreatic cancer, he might have seen his chances improve. But he held out until things got worse.

This is exactly what 42-year-old Girish Singh also did. Devastated with the news of his skin cancer, Singh was lured by the ACT promises of a naturopath in Madhya Pradesh. "My neighbour told me that he knew of people who had benefited from his treatment, " he says. "And when you're in that vulnerable state - both physically and mentally - the thought of going through painful rounds of chemo and radiation further eats you up. " Despite being wary of the naturopath, Singh, nevertheless, decided to give his treatment a shot, only to regret it soon after.

"This guy sent me a parcel of some paste to be applied on the affected areas. Not only did the skin there get severely discoloured, there was also no improvement in my condition. " Singh had no option but to go back to his oncologist and begin the treatment he had dreaded all along. "There's no point in delaying the inevitable. Those who claim to cure cancer with alternative therapies are like murderers. They should be taken to court - for misleading people and playing with their lives, " he fumes.
ACTs are usually promoted as replacements for traditional ones and do not fall within the realm of conventional treatment options. "Often, they just ruin matters, " says Sharma, who feels it's his duty to "tell his patient the truth about the state of his/her cancer - especially when it's in an early stage. Like breast cancer at stage II is curable, after (perhaps surgery and) the stipulated rounds of chemotherapy. " But, opting out to try other treatments is "100 per cent harmful. " "And why do people fall for such claims?" he wonders. "The very same patients who try these out, often come back to us with an advanced stage of cancer (which could have been avoidable) or don't come back at all - you know why. One should understand the futility of alternative therapies and the harm they cause, " he laments.

Cancer currently kills 1, 35, 000 people annually and it's likely that by 2020, some 60 per cent of new cases will surface in developing countries like ours. That is why it becomes imperative that cancer be treated at the right time and in the right manner.
"The situation is particularly worse in countries like China, Brazil and India. This is because of lack of education, " asserts Dr P K Das of the oncology department at Apollo Hospitals. "There are two kinds of people who look for ACTs - ones who get misguided and those who do so out of sheer desperation - when there's no hope left for them. " While he understands the need of the second group to try these out, he lashes out against people like a prominent yoga guru who suggests cow urine as a cure for cancer (and even HIV).

Das describes how those who were prescribed cow urine were also told that it would reduce the sideeffects of chemotherapy. "It was only when some patients landed up with acute diarrhea and dehydration, and even kidney failure because of intestinal infections, did the truth came out, " says Das.

It's much the same with aloe vera, weed grass, tulsi and bel leaves, grapefruit and passion fruit. "Many sites claim to offer cures for cancer but none of these have been scientifically proven to do so. And we don't know what side-effects they could have, " adds Das, citing the example of Amrit Kalash, a company that claims to reduce cancer and says it can help in the regression of tumours. "This is all untrue. Companies such as these are just making crores by taking advantage of those suffering from cancer. "

But cancer isn't a lost cause. As Dr SP Kataria, senior consultant, medical oncology at Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital puts it, "Each cancer is different. Sometimes, it behaves aggressively, sometimes it is borderline, in which cases the patient can carry on with lesser treatment, and sometimes win the battle. " He gives the example of cricketer Yuvraj Singh who was affected with germ-cell tumour. "This is curable in almost 80 per cent of cases and Yuvraj's treatment in the US helped. "
Kataria points out that while almost 55 per cent of cancer cases get cured in the West - because of focused treatment - things are improving in India too. Advanced cancer-detection machines, improved radio-therapy machines and effective chemotherapy are helping greatly. "But we need patients, too, to cooperate, " he says. "I know 'cancer' is a word everyone dreads, but, once detected, you need to go hammer-and-tongs at it. Following the conventional form of treatment is the only way out - for now at least - till a scientifically proven alternative cancer treatment gives us all some hope".

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