This is the third in a three part series on cancer. In part one, Dr. Halpern detailed the Western understanding of cancer, its pathophysiology, statistics, screening tests and treatment. In part two, he introduced the Ayurvedic concepts of gulma, granthi and arbuda and their classical treatments. In this issue, Dr. Halpern provides a complete overview of the many potential holistic treatments that may be offered by the practitioner of Ayurveda.
Patients who present with cancer have three basic options for treatment. The first, and the most conventional, treatments utilize chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Second are a wide range of alternative therapies. The third is a combined approach. There are benefits and challenges regardless of which decision is made. Conventional treatments for cancer have varying success rates. For some cancers, when caught early, conventional therapies do have a high success rate. Success decreases as the cancer progresses. For some cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, there is little conventional medicine can do to effect a cure even if it is caught early. Conventional medicine, backed by extensive scientific studies, offers the patient the opportunity to know what they are getting into before treatment begins. Statistics are available for the success and failure of treatment. A list of side effects for each treatment is also available. This information is important to patients who will be making choices that literally affect their own life or death. Alternative medicine offers many possible therapies ranging from dietary changes, the use of herbs, and nutritional supplements to psychic, crystal and energy healing, visualization therapies, prayer and meditation, light and color therapies, and much more. While there is anecdotal evidence of success with many of these methods, alternative methods lack the studies and statistics that show success and failure. As a result, those who choose alternative methods of healing from cancer are doing so primarily on faith or an inner belief system that supports this path. Some patients and practitioners choose to integrate conventional and alternative therapies. The attitude of some oncologists (cancer specialists) is that if it won’t hurt you, go ahead and try it. This attitude becomes more pervasive as the condition spreads and conventional treatments fail. At this time, both practitioner and patient start looking for miracles. One concern of the oncologist is that some alternative medicines might interfere with the effectiveness of their conventional medical treatment. As a result, many oncologists tell their patients not to utilize herbs while also undergoing chemotherapy. This concern is justified, because herbs do contain active pharmacological substances that may support or interfere with treatment. While some research is now being done on drug and herb interactions, extensive and conclusive knowledge is not available.
The Role of the Practitioner
The first decision facing a patient is what path to choose. Conventional? Alternative? Integrative? There is no one right answer. In my practice, patients are encouraged to make their own decision, as it is their life that is on the line. The practitioner must act as a resource to help educate their patient about the possibilities. The more the practitioner knows about the type of cancer and the available treatments, the more they can educate their patients. No practitioner, medical or alternative, can make promises of a cure. Healing is the work of God and Nature. The practitioner can only hope to be a conduit of practical knowledge, universal energy, and divine love. There is more to healing than the medicine (conventional or alternative) the patient takes. It is not just the practitioner’s vital knowledge that is important, but their heart. A practitioner is who is compassionate, kind, and present is one who is prepared to be a conduit for the divine. Knowledge is useful and important, but it is not the stuff of miracles. Miracles often arise out of the patient and practitioner relationship, because when the patient has faith, confidence and belief in the practitioner, hope is kindled and healing is possible. Studies have shown that the role of the mind and the disposition of the patient are important to the final outcome of any treatment. Practitioners who understand this keep the door open to miracles.
Healing from cancer requires not only a skillful, knowledgeable, and compassionate practitioner but a responsible, insightful, and compliant patient who understands their role in the healing process. The process begins by gathering information about their condition, the choices available for treatment, and the known information about the success and complications of each approach. For the patient ready to take responsibility for their choices and insightfully engage fully in the process of healing, many questions arise. What does this disease have to teach me? What role did I play through my actions, thoughts, and emotions in creating the condition? What can I change in order to better align myself with the energies of nature? Patients willing to engage in heart opening practices open themselves up to receiving divine grace and its power of healing, stimulating self-compassion, and self-love. Patients must also be willing to undergo lifestyle changes, the hardest and most powerful part of the healing process. Changes in lifestyle can remove and break the offending pattern of actions that bring about imbalance. That in turn creates a new form of suffering. This is called tapas–the process of giving up attachments that ultimately provides the patient with new power. Also, the best patient is compliant, doing all that the practitioner asks and allowing the practitioner to guide them through the healing process. When the hearts of the patient and practitioner are open, divine love and light have two paths through which they can enter, bringing about the miracle of healing.
The Ayurvedic Approach to Healing
Ayurveda approaches the patient on several levels of causes, including physical, emotional and spiritual.
The Physical Level: The most superficial level is approaching the symptom, which is the tumor itself. On the most superficial physical level are herbs that can reduce tumor growth and perhaps limit metastasis. Herbs can be taken internally or applied over the tumor as a paste, acting directly on the cancer and supporting a deeper healing when used in accordance with the patient’s vikruti. The practitioner must also decide if the patient requires tonification or purification therapy. Strong patients with ama require purification therapies in accordance with their prakruti and their vikruti. Purification therapies reduce ama along with excess dosha. By cleansing the srotas and the subtle nadis of the body, prana can flow freely and support the healing process. Purification is a reducing therapy, reducing the dhatus of the body as well as the doshas. Since this weakens the body, it should only be performed in patients who are strong enough. Purification therapy can be similarly viewed as cytotoxic, meaning it destroys cells. When applied properly, cellular destruction is directed primarily toward the cancerous cells.
Patients who are weak should undergo strengthening, or tonification, therapy. These therapies attempt to build up the strength (ojas) of patient. Consisting primarily of oil therapies and rejuvenative herbs, these therapies are not directly beneficial for destroying cancer cells, but do invigorate the immune system. A strong immune system is required for controlling the growth of cancer cells. Ideally, patients begin Ayurvedic treatment early when they are strong, allowing the practitioner to take the patient through a period of purification followed by a period of tonification or rejuvenation. This process leaves the patient’s body purified and their immune system strong. In addition to the management of ama and ojas, the most important system of the body to manage is the digestive system. Considered the root of physical disease, a healthy digestive system supports the healing of all tissues of the body. The digestive system is managed though the removal of ama, proper diet and herbs as well as Vamana, virchana, and basti applied appropriately with due regard for prakruti and vikruti.
The Mental Level: The role of the mind in healing must be emphasized, as mental disturbances are a more subtle cause than the physical imbalances in the doshas. Healing the mind is therefore more difficult and requires positive self-inquiry and insight. Studies have indicated that positive thinking activates the immune system and supports healing. Yet, positive thinking is not easy to sustain. A consciousness that is more tamasic or rajasic will have a difficult time sustaining a positive focus. Mental and emotional challenges produce blockages in the flow of energy in the physical body. The physical body is capable of manifesting what the mind imagines. Unhealthy imaginings (images produced deep within our consciousness) appear first in the astral body (dream body) and can eventually manifest in the physical body as disease. Healing begins with the purification of the mind. Periods of silence and a lack of sensory stimulation are the best methods of purifying the mind, and can then be supported through the use of herbs such as brahmi, tulsi and calamus. In addition to the internal use of these herbs, shirodhara can help produce inner silence while tonifying the mind. Nasya supports mental purification.
For patients with a more tamasic nature, this path of healing is very difficult. They will often lack the motivation for self-inquiry and will not fully engage in the subtle therapeutic process. These patients benefit from traditional Western psychotherapy, which begins the process of self-awareness through exploring and releasing repressed feelings. By removing obstruction to the flow of prana in the body, psychotherapy can be an important part of the patient’s healing process. So much of one’s mental power of healing lies in their capacity to experience self love. A lack of self-love, contentment, and compassion equates to a lack of mental ojas and are the additional roots of all diseases including cancer. Hence, mental purification is the process of removing these negative feelings. Mental rejuvenation must follow mental purification. This is accomplished through the use of oil therapies such as shirodhara and abhyanga. While all types of oil massage are beneficial, daily self-abhyanga is the most important act of self love because it rebuilds ojas in the mind. Caring for the body nurtures the ego, while devotional practices nourish our higher spiritual Self.
The Spiritual Level: Our spirit is essentially pure, perfect, and not truly in need of healing. However, our spirit is bound to the cycle of birth and death through the Karma generated by the actions of our ego. Spiritual healing is the process of removing or healing our karma, which plays a role in all disease. Cancer has a cause. While some of those causes are exogenous, others are endogenous, arising from within. They originate in the samskaras deeply embedded within our consciousness and manifest in part through our genetics and in part through the desires (vasanas) that generate our actions. Our genetic predispositions combine with the choices we make to bring about our challenges. In this case, the challenge is cancer. Spiritual healing is the healing of the samskaras and the underlying karma that generated it. In doing so, cancer magically seems to disappear. Hence, healing is learning. When the lesson is learned, the condition is no longer necessary.
Lessons often surround destructive lifestyle habits, thoughts, and emotions, and exist to give us the opportunity grow, learn, and evolve on our journey toward enlightenment. Without suffering, we would have no feedback about how we are living or progressing on our spiritual journey. Healing the spirit by removing our karma and freeing ourselves from suffering and the wheel of rebirth is the greatest journey of all. It is often the most difficult and lengthy path of healing, but also the most complete path. While this part of the healing journey will go on for the patient’s entire life, and even their next, each change in the patient’s consciousness alters how they manifest in this lifetime. Even small changes at the level of consciousness can be enough to heal cancer!
The Power of Visualization
Visualization is the process of engaging the imagination in the process of healing. Because of the strong mind/body connection, what is imagined affects our physiology. This includes our immune system. By visualizing a positive outcome, chances of survival and healing are increased. To be successful, patients should engage in the process several times per day, sitting quietly for 15 to 30 minutes. Healing visualizations can be quite varied, and often include: seeing the body’s immune system destroying the cancerous tumors; visualizing the body as strong, healthy, active, and in service; and visualizing divine light and love entering the body through the crown or heart chakras, bringing about healing by loving the cancerous cells to death.
Sattvic Healing Practices
Sattvic practices are important for keeping the mind clear and supporting the healing process. A clear mind reflects the light of God. Sattvic practices assist in the healing of karma. Patients benefit from spending more time in nature, taking walks in the forest or by the ocean. Meditation is the king of all sattvic practices. By finding the inner silence the patient dives deep into the well of unlimited potential. Yoga asana is the queen of sattvic practices, and is among the most transformative practices a person can engage in. Gentle motions reducing tension and inner restrictions combined with diaphragmatic breathing makes yoga asana a perfect metaphor for flowing with nature, allowing her energies to course through us, removing blockages and promoting healing. All patients with cancer will benefit by reducing stress and engaging in activities that bring joy, and should be encouraged to pursue their love of art, music, writing, and other forms of self expression, and be surrounded by loving friends and family.
Ayurvedic knowledge about diet is quite extensive and patients should follow a diet appropriate to their prakruti and vikruti. Conventional wisdom teaches us that certain foods should be emphasized and others avoided. Cancer patients should avoid all processed, genetically engineered foods, refined sugars, and foods that contain additives. These foods are tamasic in nature and, according to Ayurveda, clog the channels and upset normal bodily functions. Patients should also avoid overeating. Following the accepted Ayurvedic guidelines for healthy eating include saying grace before eating, avoiding too much water with meals, chewing food properly, combining foods appropriately, and resting for a while after eating. Proper food choices are essential to normalize digestion and prevent the formation of ama. Water taken throughout the day should be as pure as possible. The exact diet a patient with cancer should follow depends upon their prakruti, vikruti, ama, agni, and ojas. The practitioner must make decisions based upon sound reasoning while allowing some room for intuitive creativity.
It is widely held, even in scientific circles, that a diet which includes large amounts of fruits and vegetables is most likely to prevent cancer. Fruits and vegetables have been found to contain a wide range of phytochemicals that are being shown in animal studies to reduce the incidence of many cancers. Some of these phytochemicals and the foods they are found in include Sulforaphane (cauliflower), p-Coumaric Acid (tomatoes), Genistein (soy beans), Capsaicin (chili peppers) and Flavonoids (citrus fruits).
Healing Cancer with Herbs
While everyone is looking for the definitive cure for cancer in an herb, Ayurvedic practitioners know that healing is more than taking a pill. Herbs offer great potential to stimulate the healing process and can even destroy cancer cells. This property of an herb (or drug) is called the cytotoxic effect. While studies reveal that herbs have cytotoxic or antineoplastic (preventing cancerous cell growth) activity, few have documented their exact effect. Historical references often state simply that herbs are beneficial in a general sense, but do not specify which types of cancer they are effective for, or at what stage. In the classical Ayurvedic literature, there are listings of complex formulations for the treatment of various types of arbuda (malignancy). Many of the herbs that are credited with the potential to heal cancer are strongly purifying; ridding the body of toxins, excess dosha, and ama. Most of these purifying and reducing herbs are bitter in taste.
While there are hundreds of herbs with presumed anticancer effects, several examples of strongly reducing herbs with a reputation to destroy tumors include red clover, burdock root, dandelion root, guggul, turmeric and chaparral. Other specific herbs have been well studied, and include:
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) has been shown to reduce the incidence of a variety of cancers, including the most impossible to cure, pancreatic cancer, and also to prevent stomach, colon, and breast and lung cancer. This conclusion was based upon a study of the population of China which showed that as tea consumption increased, cancer rates sharply decreased. A study in Japan showed green tea to reduce the likelihood of metastasis in patients with breast cancer and overall improved prognosis. Still, the main action of green tea appears to be preventative and its effects in patients with cancer are largely unknown.
Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) has been shown to actually reduce cancerous cellular growth. These studies were performed on leukemic cell lines in 1998.
Manjistha (Rubia cordifolia) has been shown to have mild antineoplastic activity and is often used as a part of uterine and ovarian cancer formulas.
Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is an example of an herb from which anti-cancer drugs have been produced. The young leaves contain two phytochemicals used to produce the drugs vinblastine and vincristine. These drugs help to treat leukemia and lymphoma. It has also been used in the treatment of breast cancer.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) and Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) have also have been found to possess anticarcinogenic activity. An alcoholic extract of both herbs has been shown to be effective in reducing epidermal carcinoma of the nasopharynx. Shatavari is a rare example of a nutritive herb with anticarcinogenic properties.
Ayurvedic Energetics of all Anti Cancer Herbs Mentioned in this Article
Bitter, pungent, astringent, sweet
Bitter, sweet, sweet
Bitter, astringent, pungent
The proper management of a patient with cancer requires all of the skills of the practitioner. Armed with knowledge, compassion, and an open heart, the practitioner is prepared to engage the patient and the disease. When working with a patient who is willing to engage in self inquiry and insight and is able to make lifestyle changes, the stage is set for miracles to occur. Through the grace of God and the love of Mother Earth, healing is possible.