Cancer patients desperate for options

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herbal treatmentGREENWOOD, Miss. -- Abraham Cherrix never set out to be an advocate for alternative medicine. He is just a 16-year-old with cancer who refused to undergo a second round of chemotherapy and went to court to fight for his right not to have it.

In a court-ordered compromise, the Virginia teenager landed at the North Central Mississippi Regional Cancer Center, one of a new breed of cancer facilities in the United States that integrate conventional medicine and alternative therapies.

Cherrix's struggle to use herbs and diet supplements to fight Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system--rather than have a series of debilitating rounds of chemotherapy--has brought attention to a growing movement in the U.S. to bring alternative medicine into the mainstream.

Although Americans have been crossing the border into Mexico for more than 40 years in search of cancer treatments illegal in the United States, interest in alternative and complementary healing methods in this country is rising. The move is being fueled by the Internet's ability to provide easy access to information and by personal testimonials of patients.

Advertisements for alternative therapies are everywhere, from highway billboards to health magazines. Clinics specializing in acupuncture, dietary supplements and herbal medicines--considered unconventional a decade ago--can be found in almost every U.S. city. To remain competitive, a fifth of U.S. hospitals now offer some type of alternative or complementary therapy such as massage, yoga, homeopathy or mind-body therapy.

"This is a patient-driven effort to access things that are approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] or are outside its jurisdiction," said Dr. Arnold Smith, medical director at the Mississippi cancer center. "The desktop computer has become a window to the world of education regarding diseases and treatment."

$36 billion to $47 billion spent

Americans spend an estimated $36 billion to $47 billion a year on alternative and complementary treatments, either as a substitute for conventional medicine or in conjunction with it, according to national surveys.

A 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that 36 percent of Americans use some form of alternative healing. When prayer was included as a means of healing, the figure jumped to 62 percent. The use of herbs, which do not require FDA approval, doubled from 1997 to 2002, researchers said, adding that Americans spend $5billion alone on herbal products.

"The old mind-set is if you are not doing the conventional method, you are not doing anything," said Barbara Sikes, a 62-year-old chiropractor from Virginia Beach, Va., who is undergoing alternative treatments in Mexico for breast cancer. "But for me, it is much scarier to get cut on or to go through chemotherapy than to just eat healthy and take vitamins."

The FDA categorizes most herbal remedies as dietary supplements, which, like vitamins and minerals, fall somewhere between food and drugs. While it is illegal to label supplements as a cure for any disease or illness, manufacturers are not required to prove they are safe or effective.

With traditional health-care costs rising to $1.9 trillion and 46.6 million people without health insurance, natural remedies have become more attractive to Americans--especially cancer patients, for example, who sometimes pay up to $50,000 a year for a single medication.

A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2001 found that nearly 7 in 10 cancer patients in the U.S. use alternative medicine, though most often in combination with conventional therapies.

"Part of the reason it is growing is because people see there is some progress in conventional cancer treatment, but certainly the answers to most cancer questions have not been found," said Dr. Jeffrey White, director of the National Institutes of Health's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "People want to take responsibility for their health and supplement it with what is available."

Another reason is the concern about side effects of prescription drugs, said Malcolm Johnson, clinical director at Godobe Health Service, an Atlanta clinic that specializes in Chinese remedies.

"Whenever you see a drug commercial on TV, it talks about the positive benefits and at the end, there is a long list of side effects," Johnson said.

"I'm feeling wonderful"

After five weeks of treatment, Cherrix returned home to Chincoteague, Va., in early October having undergone immunotheraphy, which strengthens the immune system with supplements and diet and low-dose radiation to shrink the tumor in his neck.

"I'm feeling wonderful," he told The Associated Press after leaving the cancer center.

The first thing most people notice about Cherrix is that he seems to be wise beyond his teenage years.

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