Integrative means “to unify separate items.” Oncology refers to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. So, in a strict sense, exercise, nutrition, deep breathing, and meditation that are aimed at reducing the pain, nausea, stress, and other consequences of cancer could qualify as integrative oncology.
However, most people who consider themselves integrative oncologists use the term because it sounds better than “malarkey.” They offer aura cleansings, naturopathy, and energy healing, all of which have no plausible mechanism by which they would arrest rouge cell growth.
While proponents try to spin it as offering the best of both the traditional and alternative medicine worlds, the term is almost never used by those who combat cancer with chemotherapy and surgery; it’s used almost exclusively by those who prefer beef liver regimens and crystals.
Integrative oncologists favor terms like “multidisciplinary, “synergy,” “patient-centered,” “holistic,” “mind-body-spirit meld,” and “optimizing wellness.” These vacuous words gloss over the fact that the techniques they offer won’t help cure a patient’s cancer. To do that, one needs chemo, radiation, targeted drug therapy, immunotherapy, or surgery.
Again, in the strict sense of the word, there is room for integrative oncology. Wigs and prosthetic brassieres for post-mastectomy patients are examples of how a person can be helped with issues related to cancer without the disease itself being impacted.
Or perhaps a patient suffers from malnutrition, as cancer affects their appetite and digestion. It would therefore be valid to work with a dietician to come up with a meal plan that will provide the extra vitamins and minerals needed while battling cancer and undergoing treatment.
And since a potentially lethal disease causes dread, anxiety, stress, fear, and worry, it follows that meditation, guided imagery, or a massage to help deal with these emotions can be beneficial. Or the patient may be an erstwhile distance runner who is now incapable of much exertion at all. In this instance, an exercise plan that squares with this new reality is another good idea. So tai chi, yoga, meditation, and the like are all fine for dealing with the tangential issues of cancer. As long as there is no claim that any magical, curative energy is at work, it’s fine.
The nonsense comes from thinking, as Dr. Axe does, that one of the nation’s leading killers is going to be stymied by “vegetable juicing, probiotic foods, immune-boosting supplements, stress reducing techniques, and prayer.” He presumably followed his attorney’s advice by adding, “I am not claiming that is a cancer cure.” Having taken care of that legal cover, Axe dovetails back into, “I believe these natural therapies, either used by themselves or in conjunction with conventional medical treatments, may support the healing process.”
Like much alternative medicine, integrative oncology has seeped into our institutions of higher learning. This includes the University of Arizona, which offers a course on the subject. Despite a terse description of the field on its website, the university manages to squeeze in three logical fallacies:
“It is estimated that a great majority of cancer patients are using complementary therapies in addition to conventional care (ad populum). As patients face a life-threatening diagnosis out of their control, they turn to therapies that offer hope and a regained sense of empowerment (appeal to consequences). You will learn techniques such as those offered in Traditional Chinese Medicine (appeal to antiquity).”
Bypassing conventional cancer treatment is almost guaranteed to be fatal. In the last year, there have been heartbreaking cases of persons trying to cure cancer with Gerson Therapy, veganism, or baking soda and lemon juice.
While not as drastic as those tragedies, integrative oncology mixes the legit and the looney. This creates a parasitic relationship, where chemotherapy, surgery, targeted drug therapy, and immunotherapy are considered in the same class of cancer treatment as are coffee enemas, frankincense, B12 overloads, and lots of sunshine. All those are types of naturopathy. The field has many forms, but the underlying theme is that the body has an inherent ability to heal itself if only it can be prompted by the right vehicle. This notion cannot be squared with cancer treatment. Incorporating iridologists, Reiki practitioners, or oily neck rubs is of zero value and could even be dangerous since a somewhat pleasant craniosacral massage is going to seem more attractive than another round of chemo, perhaps prompting the patient to forgo the latter.
That’s why UCLA’s Simms-Mann Center is wrong to proclaim that “the best medicine combines multiple modalities.” No, the best medicine is proven through metadata of double blind studies. More is not necessarily better. The removal of a malignant tumor isn’t going to be aided by listening to binaural beats.