Sondra Braun would rather die than go through chemotherapy and radiation.
But after the South Toledoan learned more than 1 years ago that she had breast cancer, she didn't accept that fate.
She took the estrogen blocker her oncologist recommended, although she changed to an herbal version after experiencing joint pain and weight gain from the pharmaceutical. She searched online for an alternative treatment and decided to try consuming a mixture with baking soda, which was being used by an Italian oncologist to kill cancer cells.
Within months, the tumor in her right breast shrank and died. Doctors contend that tests show cancer has spread into her bones, but Mrs. Braun doesn't agree with them.
The 60-year-old continues to treat herself with the herbal estrogen blocker, baking soda mixture, and other natural remedies instead of conventional oncology treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. People don't poison and burn their bodies for other conditions, said Mrs. Braun, who also decided against surgery.
“I think the treatment is worse than the disease, and it's not a cure, so why let somebody torture you?” she said.
Mrs. Braun added: “That way I know what I'm dying from. It's not from the crap you're giving me.”
More Americans are supplementing conventional medicine with so-called holistic, alternative, complementary, or integrative techniques. Although Mrs. Braun's experience is an extreme example — and one challenged by many doctors, who caution against unproven remedies — other people have found relief from ailments with techniques including acupuncture or massage.
About 38 percent of U.S. adults use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, with herbal supplements, deep-breathing exercises, meditation, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, massage, and yoga being the most common, according to the latest government survey.
That 2007 survey also found nearly 12 percent of American children use complementary and alternative medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.
In 2002, 36 percent of American adults were found to use complementary or alternative medicine.
To expose soon-to-be doctors to different techniques, the University of Toledo medical college, the former Medical College of Ohio, started offering an elective course on complementary and integrative medicine to fourth-year medical students. Students spend time with a chiropractor, a doctor who does acupuncture, a massage therapist, and others, said Dr. Sanford Kimmel, a professor at the UT's medical college and vice chairman of family medicine.
Dr. Kimmel said he warns people that they should be well educated about integrative techniques and products before using them. Herbal products could have quality problems, for example, and use of any integrative medicine should be compatible with other treatments, he said.
“We're not encouraging people to use them in place of standard therapy, but there are things that can be done with standard therapy,” Dr. Kimmel said.
Interest in integrative medicine long has been evident in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, but more practitioners have become available to treat patients in recent years, said Dr. Diane McCormick, a Toledo doctor who practices acupuncture and is one of UT's volunteer instructors.
About 20 years ago, she was an emergency room physician at Flower Hospital in Sylvania when a decade of unsuccessful efforts to handle chronic back pain made her interested in integrative medicine. Eventually, she started studying acupuncture, and she primarily treats people with symptoms that include pain, headaches, stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and asthma.
Dr. McCormick said she receives and gives other treatments as well. A combination of approaches, she said, is necessary for many patients, whom she advises to follow the advice of surgeons and other doctors. “Really, there's no one answer — there's rarely one answer — to solving complex medical problems,” she said. “It affects the body on many levels: body, mind, and spirit.”
Susan Papenfuss of Maumee, who has battled breast and ovarian cancer with standard oncology treatments, continues to do some integrative techniques to stay physically and mentally healthy.
She was receiving chemotherapy for ovarian cancer through an abdominal port last year when she started doing chair yoga with Tina Ferner, coordinator of the integrative medicine department for Mercy Cancer Centers. The class for survivors and their loved ones meets weekly, and Mrs. Papenfuss recently was among a group of a dozen women that included Mary Rosa of West Toledo and Rita Konecki of South Toledo.
“Even with the port, I could do the chair exercises and still get the benefits of health and well being,” Mrs. Papenfuss said after the hour-long yoga class that incorporated relaxation, strengthening and balance moves, and her requested help with patience.
Said Ms. Ferner: “Chair yoga is one of the things you can do, even when you don't have any energy.”
The yoga class is part of a program Ms. Ferner developed nearly 10 years ago. A Mercy oncology dietitian at the time, she wanted to do something to ease nausea among cancer patients getting high-dose chemotherapy, so she turned to massage therapy.
Massage not only decreased nausea, anxiety, and shortness of breath among cancer patients, it also helped them sleep, Ms. Ferner said. Employees offer massage, guided imagery, and comfort touch to oncology and palliative patients at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center and Mercy St. Charles Hospital and to those getting chemotherapy and radiation at Mercy Cancer Centers.
Once a month, Mercy also offers Eastern oncology massage clinics, using warm rocks and herbal oils. Nutrition classes, belly dancing, and partner massage classes are among other offerings.
And Mercy is one of just two national training sites for oncology massage therapists through the Peregrine Institute of Oncology Massage Training in Santa Fe.
Mercy's integrative services are free for oncology and palliative patients. But insurance coverage for other integrative services varies, with only the best plans covering acupuncture, for example, and often only a limited number of sessions, Dr. McCormick said.
Deidre Perlini of Holland has been treated by Dr. McCormick for about three years for a serious back injury that caused chronic pain. Pain medication was not an option because she wanted to continue driving and to care for her two children. Other conventional treatments were not enough, she said.
In just a short time, she said, acupuncture helped with pain, energy levels, and her ability to sleep. Dr. McCormick deals with the source of her pain, and she is able to discuss conventional treatments as well, she said.
“She has the twofold knowledge of how medicine is practiced right now,” Mrs. Perlini said. “She brings in that element.”
Dr. McCormick also treats patients with a variety of vitamins and supplements, as well as bioidentical hormones made from plants to relieve symptoms in women with extreme menopausal symptoms, for example.
For 22 years, Dr. Keith Barbour has practiced physical medicine and rehabilitation to treat pain and immobility issues. The Monroe osteopathic doctor uses hands-on techniques, homeopathic and other supplements, and other treatments focused on both the body and mind.
“I depend on the body healing itself,” he said. “That makes me osteopathic, truly holistic.”
For the first decade of his practice, 90 percent of patients wanted a quick fix for pain, such as an injection. Now, for the past decade, that same percentage is more concerned about getting to the root of their problems, Dr. Barbour said.
Tony Zimkowski also uses a hands-on, holistic technique called Rolfing to treat patients. The Lambertville practitioner, who has been in practice for 33 years, uses deep pressure to work on the fascia, the connective tissue that holds a person's skeleton together and to improve patients' posture.
Rolfing requires 10 weekly sessions to open and finish each case, and Mr. Zimkowski doesn't want to treat patients again for at least a year. All patients are referred, with 75 percent coming from medical doctors and the rest from chiropractors, psychologists, and others, he said.
Everyone caring for patients must work together, Mr. Zimkowski said.
“Without integration, any intervention is meaningless,” he said.
Rolfing is another technique that has benefited Mrs. Braun, who used baking soda to kill cancer cells that thrive in an acidic environment, she said. Knowing she could not find a U.S. practitioner who would apply baking soda solution directly to her tumor as has been done by an Italian oncologist, Mrs. Braun said she consumed a mixture of baking soda and pure maple syrup to keep her body alkaline enough to kill it.
Mrs. Braun said she continues to periodically take the mixture to keep up her body's pH, and she will not use conventional oncology treatments even if the cancer has spread to her bones, nor undergo a painful biopsy. She attributes a birth defect and the consumption of vitamin D3 to prevent osteoporosis, part of her regimen of supplements and herbs, for questionable test results, she said.
Only with cancer, it seems, do patients follow their doctors without question, said Mrs. Braun, who is part Native American and was raised on natural cures. And doctors assume everything is cancer once patients have a history of it, she added.
“I still think I'm doing it the right way,” Mrs. Braun said. “It's a lot healthier.”
Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6087.