LEPISTO: An unfolding journey with cancer
Editor's note: Dr. Lepisto presents the first in a series of very personal columns on cancer. The following story is revealed with the consent of the patient and family, and is consistent with HIPAA regulations.
On March 28, my best friend, Zachariah Walker, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a potentially serious and immediately life-threatening cancer. This diagnosis was a shock for everyone involved, although a known possibility as he had just had a bone marrow biopsy the week before, with the intention to rule out leukemia. Those results came back positive, and have started what has been a wild ride over the last two-plus weeks.
A patient with a new cancer diagnosis is bombarded by an incredible amount of information, both from their doctors and from any research they may undertake on their own. From a conventional medicine perspective, it is apparent people are often only given two choices. First, do chemotherapy, drugs, surgery and/or radiation with all of the known risks and side effects, or two, do nothing.
In my friend's case, all of the involved specialists were strongly recommending chemotherapy, and with great urgency. My initial impression was that he needed more options.
Not initially trusting the recommendation for chemotherapy, I proceeded to research and investigate any evidence-based complementary medicine that demonstrated efficacy to put AML into remission. By evidence-based, I am referring to therapies that pass a solid science and research-based litmus test. A cure is unknown at this point, in the same way that anyone with cancer does not know if cancer will recur until the moment of diagnosis.
I found clinics and hospitals in the U.S., Switzerland, Germany and Mexico that had promising experience in treating AML, with particularly compelling facilities in Germany and Mexico. One of the most appealing reasons to look outside the U.S. is that many long-standing therapies for cancer are not available here due to FDA (Food and Drug Administration) restriction.
One example is a therapy called Systemic Ozonated Hyperthermia, of which the hyperthermia aspect has a 50-year history in Germany. In addition, Zachariah has HMO-based insurance, which means that most, perhaps all of the alternative therapies that he chooses, must be paid out of pocket.
The choice of where he will receive care is complicated by his already compromised immune system, which quickly ruled out European facilities due to the extended flights in tight quarters, with any number of sick or ill people. Mexico looks particularly appealing as a hospital facility having an integrative oncology wing. This means that he would be able to receive chemotherapy along with the complementary therapies, both of which will cost 60-75% less than identical therapies in the U.S. For these reasons, Mexico is looking like a better-and-better choice. Last week, I set up a phone consult with an internist there, the chief M.D. of integrative oncology.
The physician there consulted with us for 1.5 hours, and we essentially learned that to date, there are no evidence-based complementary therapies that will put AML into remission. This matched my research. I then sent him all the current lab information and medical history so that we could get input on the most immediately pressing question, “Should we start chemotherapy here?” The answer came back the same from both this internist and a naturopathic oncologist classmate that I consulted with, that Zachariah was in what is called a “blast crisis,” and that chemotherapy should be started immediately.
This is not the news that I, Zachariah, his family or many others wanted to hear, but nonetheless he has, as of this writing, successfully navigated six-plus days of chemotherapy. The family has handled this remarkably well, probably because Zachariah has handled this so remarkably well. He has found a way to do yoga outside, has put positive affirmations on his chemotherapy bag like “Liquid Sunshine” and “I Love You,” and has an incredibly positive outlook.
“This is doable,” his mother said. He is doing so well, in fact, that he may go home immediately following the chemotherapy, which is atypical. Many people are monitored in hospital isolation for one week after chemotherapy, before being discharged.
Zachariah has succeeded in getting all of his supplements approved, with full disclosure, to the attending physicians at the hospital. This means he is able to get his fish oil, whey protein, concentrated berry syrup, digestive enzymes, herbs and organic food that his friends and I have brought into the hospital for him. He is also getting weekly B-12 injections there in the hospital, and conventional interventions like blood transfusions and medications to suppress the chemo side effects. (PLEASE NOTE: This treatment plan is uniquely designed for Zachariah. In no way should you assume this is appropriate for you or any family member with cancer. We will be adapting this plan as soon as he is released from the hospital.)
His naturopathic treatments are designed to put his cancer into remission, reduce inflammation, prevent mouth sores, diarrhea and hair loss (all usual toxic effects from the chemotherapy), while keeping his muscle mass, nutrient absorption and energy during this extremely taxing process. So far, he has only complained of nausea and fatigue in the afternoons for a few hours at a time, to the surprise of one of his physicians.
Since it is likely that none of the alternative treatments Zachariah chooses will be covered by his insurance, he is expecting significant medical costs, magnified by the ongoing treatment needed to prevent the leukemia from recurring. If you would like to donate to Zachariah's health and wellness fund, visit around-z-world.blogspot.com. There will also be several fundraising events for him in Grand Junction and details can be found on the site.
One of the most stirring and beautiful results of Zachariah's journey is that many people are being inspired by his resilience and courage. For my part, I have felt recharged and renewed in my practice. I am sharing Zachariah's unfolding story with you so that patients and family of people with cancer can realize that there are resources available to them that include conventional, naturopathic and other complementary medicines. An integrative treatment approach is possible!
Dr. Christopher Lepisto graduated as a naturopathic doctor (ND) from Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash. He is a native of Grand Junction and opened his practice here in 2004. Previously, Lepisto lived and worked in New Zealand, where he developed a special interest in indigenous herbal medicines. Lepisto practices downtown near Fourth and Main. For more information, visit www.grandjunctionnaturopath.com or call 970-250-4104.