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 Breast Cancer: Revisiting Accepted Wisdom in the Management of Breast Cancer - Part 2 

Longevity has changed little, and the major illnesses such as malignancy and cardiovascular disease remain unimpeded. Illnesses disproportionately affect the poor, major environmental and occupational causes of illnesses receive little attention and less action, and malpractice charges intensify. Clearly, there is a crisis in health care, both in its effect upon health and in its cost. Simultaneously, medical institutions characterize themselves as excellent. Some medical outcomes are inadequate not because appropriate technicalinterventions are lacking, but because our conceptual thinking is inadequate.

Medicine cannot capitulate to less than a thorough and on-going review of its own habits of mind, as well as its practices. On the disappointing results in the treatment of breast cancer, one of Virchow's pronouncements spoken in 1896 is still germane: "Indeed, a great deal of industrious work is being done and the microscope is extensively used, but someone should have another bright idea."14(p107) Psychologist CG Jung52 commented that "[tlhe serious problems in life ... are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seems to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly."

Although breast cancer is always undesirable and bad, the women who have it are often splendid and good. No one chooses breast cancer as a teacher, but it becomes one. Many women struggling with breast cancer are heroic, powerful, and courageous. How each woman chooses to interact with this disease is as varied as the lives they live. Libby was diagnosed 3 years ago and underwent a modified mastectomy and intensive chemotherapy for a year, which eliminated metastatic liver tumors from view on a CAT scan. The tumors recently recurred. Shirley was told, after 3 years of therapy, that she had only 6 months to live without a bone marrow transplant. She decided not to follow this path, went into remission, and was alive 4 years later. Catherine found a lump while lathering in the shower, had a lumpectomy, and elected not to have her lymph nodes dissected nor undergo radiation or chemotherapy, instead exploring alternative therapies including herbs, a careful diet, yoga, and other activities that gave her pleasure. It is now 5 years that she is alive, though she has evidence of local masses. Erica did not survive a bone marrow transplant. Marilyn did. Breast cancer may be lethal, but we know birth to be an absolutely fatal disease. Many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer will die of other causes, even though they do not get over the disease as if it were a winter cold.

Debra's acupuncturist, reflecting on her breast cancer, commented, "You're the sky and the disease is a cloud in the sky." He is aware of the dualistic perspectives that sometimes have difficulty meeting: attention to the disease mechanism versus regard for the person who has it. Put simply, in one model the doctor is a mechanic fixing a broken body machine, and in the other the doctor is a gardener cultivating a healthy ecology in which the rich soil houses microbes that can combat pests. This is another debate that has echoed through centuries. In mid-19th-century France, Louis Pasteur introduced the idea that disease was located outside the body, in the form of germs. This distracted medicine, encouraging people to think that the invaders could be slain like marauders in a castle. Pasteur's contemporary Claude Bernard had insisted that it was the milieu interieur--the state of the organism; the relationship between the seed and the soil, the pathogen and its host--that was determinant. Breast conserving pioneer and physician Vera Peters53 comments that "[t]he important influence of the patient's potential to control her own disease cannot be overlooked. Probably a superior immune mechanism is the major factor allowing the majority to postpone metastatic disease for many years. Their immune potential is reflected by their state of physical and mental health, and by the lymphocyte count."

(Excerpted from Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine)
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 About The Author
Harriet Beinfield LAcHarriet Beinfield, L.Ac. and Efrem Korngold, L.Ac., O.M.D. have pioneered the practice of Chinese medicine in America for the last 28 years as educators, writers, and practitioners. They are the co-authors of the......more
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