Cancer Treatment: Blending Traditional Chinese Medicine & Western Medicine

Contributed by: Dr Khoo Kei Siong

Can East and West work together?

Greater mutual understanding is needed, say panellists in a talk on Traditional Chinese Medicine.

While Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have long been seen to be at odds with each other, they can complement each other in helping patients battle cancer. Both share a common approach in helping patients cope with cancer – looking for precise, individualised ways to target the cancer and its side effects.

A deeper understanding of each other’s system, however, is needed in order to know how their respective treatments might interact with each other.

These were the lessons shared at a talk by Parkway Cancer Centre (PCC) and TCM healthcare chain Eu Yan Sang. The two-hour talk, held at Gleneagles Hospital, drew some 90 people, and saw a lively participation in a question-and-answer session following presentations by an oncologist and a TCM physician on how patients can benefit from their respective systems of medicine.

In his talk, PCC’s Deputy Medical Director Dr Khoo Kei Siong explained how genetic profiling has enabled doctors to target different types of cancer more precisely. While traditional cancer treatments – surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy – are based on studying cancer at the cellular level, a growing understanding of the genetic changes involved in the mutation of cells leading to cancer is helping doctors to differentiate between different types of cancer, so that they can find the best drug to treat them.

“Precision medicine is the use of genetic profile of the cancer and the patient to guide our decision to prevent, diagnose and treat cancers,” he said. “What we hope to do at the end of the day is to be able to give the right drug to the right patient, for the right disease at the right time and in the right doses.”

Dr Khoo gave several examples of how genetic markers have helped doctors come up with new therapies that target specific types of melanoma, lung cancer and breast cancer. The results have been encouraging: doctors have reported shrinking tumours, extending patients’ lifespans, increasing the chances of recovery, and giving them a greater quality of life.

TCM treatment has a similar aim, but does this in a different way. Eu Yan Sang physician Ms Lin Jia Yi talked about the holistic approach behind TCM, and explained how TCM revolved around such things as preserving a person’s “qi” – vital energy – and balancing the yin and yang. She also showed how physicians can tailor prescriptions to help cancer patients cope with the side effects of treatment and strengthen their immune system.

In her talk, she listed down some Chinese herbs that can address common problems like vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and fatigue. But these herbs have to be combined in different ways for different patients, depending on their individual make-up.

Like Dr Khoo Kei Siong, Ms Lin stressed that TCM had to be personalised carefully. Not all patients respond to a specific herb or combination the same way, she said, advising patients to consult a physician for proper treatment instead of believing claims that a certain herb could prevent or cure cancer.

Both speakers were peppered with questions after their presentations. Participants not only queried Dr Khoo and Ms Lin on specific Western and TCM treatments, but also asked about comparisons between the two approaches.

“Western doctors generally frown on TCM while a patient is undergoing treatment for cancer,” observed one. “Why do you think that’s the case? Are there any adverse side effects?”

Replying, Ms Lin explained that many Western-medicine practitioners are hesitant to advise on the use of TCM because they are unsure about how TCM prescriptions might interact with Western treatments. “When there’s no understanding, then there’s misunderstanding,” she said.

On their part, she acknowledged, TCM physicians also need to gain a deeper understanding of Western medicines. For now, she said, most TCM physicians would advise patients to take TCM medicine only after completing their Western treatments, to avoid any possible interaction.

Another participant asked: “Do you foresee TCM and Western medicine working hand in hand?”

“Possible, but not in the near future,” replied Ms Lin, who noted that it was possible but challenging for either side to understand other systems of medicine when each branch was so established.

Agreeing, Dr Khoo Kei Siong said: “Not every Western doctor frowns on TCM.” He explained that more is known about how Western drugs interacted with each other than with TCM treatment. Hence Western doctors do not advise on TCM. “If you don’t have the knowledge, then you’re really not in the position to give proper advice,” he said. “So you take the more conservative way and say, ‘We’re not sure’.”

Written by Koh Bee Eng

POSTED IN Traditional Chinese Medicine and Cancer
TAGS cancer quality of life, common side effects of cancer treatment, seminar & workshop, TCM cancer treatment
READ MORE ABOUT Breast Cancer, Lung Cancer, Melanoma