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Some people are diagnosed with cancer, are given a short time to live, and against all odds go into remission. The medical profession is finally waking to the fact it doesn't understand everything about cancer because of these exceptional responders.

We've all known people who defy the expectations of their doctors.

Maybe it's a friend who smokes every day, never exercises, hates going to the doctor, eats lots of fatty foods, and lives to be 98. Or maybe it's a family member who exercises, eats right, does everything the doctor says, and dies of lung cancer at the age of 45. 

Even though mainstream medicine regards large-scale clinical trials as the holy grail of scientific truth, more and more researchers are noticing that exceptional responders to medical treatment, people who get either inexplicably good results or inexplicably bad, can teach the scientists about the real nature of disease and the real value of treatment.

Who Are the Exceptional Responders?

"Evidence-based medicine" rests on the statistical principal that large numbers of observations should compensate for any errors in choosing the participants included in a clinical trial. Researchers want to compare "apples to apples and oranges to oranges" with their research. There was a point in cancer research, for example, when researchers were looking for treatments for "cancer," as if there were just one kind of cancer. (This is where a lot of the advocates of natural medicine are stuck, with beliefs such as "vitamin B-17 cures all cancers," although it doesn't, for example).

Then cancer researchers started differentiating cancers on the basis of location. Lung cancer isn't the same thing as breast cancer, and neither is the same thing as brain cancer, for example. However, then it became obvious that there are differences among cancers even when they occur in the same organ. Breast cancers may be estrogen-receptor positive (that is, they are stimulated by estrogen, and removing estrogen from circulation may slow them down) or estrogen receptor non-positive. Pancreatic cancer may be an exocrine tumor, or a neuroendocrine tumor, or an islet cell tumor. Lung cancer may be small cell or non-small cell.

Cancers with similar names, it turned out, might be mixtures of apples with oranges, or oranges with apples, or maybe apples with bananas and pomegranates. Especially since the mapping of the human genome, cancer has been redefined into types, and subtypes, and subtypes within subtypes. However, these classifications also miss the point.

If You Are a Cancer Patient, You Aren't Just a Statistic

Clinical trials for cancer drugs are based on the experience of hundreds of people under tightly controlled conditions that are designed to remove any consideration for individual differences. That's what makes them "scientific." 

The treatment actual cancer patients get at their oncologists' offices, however, is highly individualized. No practicing oncologist assumes that a single approach to treatment works for every patient who has cancer, or even every patient who have a particular type or subtype of cancer. Successful cancer treatment is always about your cancer, not someone else's. 

Similarly, even when a test involving hundreds of people finds "no significant benefit" of a treatment, that doesn't mean that it didn't work for anyone. It only means that the treatment can't be reasonably expected to work for everyone. The fact that science doesn't back up a particular treatment doesn't mean that treatment won't work for you. Some treatments, however, are still better than others.

Can You Be An Exceptional Patient

There are at least a couple of ways to exercise poor judgment with regard to cancer treatment. One is to suppose that there is some kind of vast conspiracy by the drug companies and doctors that keeps cancer patients sick so the drug companies can make more money. It may seem that way, but the real problem is that there is an inherent limitation in modern scientific medicine: It's about groups of patients,not individual patients. A treatment may not be found to work because it really doesn't work, or because the group of patients for whom it works is poorly understood.

The other way to go wrong with cancer treatment is to suppose that if science doesn't support a particular treatment, then it must work. That isn't true, either. There really are proposed treatments that don't work for anybody, and some of the happen to be "natural."

What can ordinary cancer patients do to make sure that they avail themselves of everything that works?

  • One thing every cancer patient should do is to get all the genetic testing available. Genetic testing used to cost thousands of dollars. Now most test for single genes cost $100 or so and are covered by insurance. Genetic testing can tell your doctors how you are likely to respond to various treatments, and save months of getting the wrong medication.
  • Another thing every cancer patient should to is to embrace all the nutritional interventions that seem have potential to work, without extreme diets. When you have cancer is not the best time to go on a low-calorie diet. You'll have enough trouble with appetite, nausea, and vomiting without making matters worse. It is the time, however, to eat for your health, but also to realize that not everybody will react to nutritional intervention in the same way.

Here's an example of how not everyone reacts to nutritional interventions in the same way 

There is no such thing as a single food or a single supplement that helps everybody with cancer every time. Moreover, the foods that seem to prevent cancer are not necessarily the foods that help you beat cancer. There are some foods that are very useful in many situations, but curing cancer with nutrition is more about patterns of food choices rather than specific foods. The reason for this is human genetic variation. Let's take a look at a common example of how genetics affect the cancer-fighting capacity of a well-known cancer-fighting food.

The isothiocyanates, also known as ITCs, are the anti-cancer compounds in vegetables in the Brassica family.

They are found in the crucifers such as bok choi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kai-lan, kale, kohlrabi, komatsuna, mustard, rapini, rutabagas, and turnips. The same sulfur-laden compounds that make most of these vegetables smelly when they are cooked become potent cancer-fighters when they are digested in the human body.

The protective action by the ITCs takes place in the liver. They help the liver's Phase I enzymes add a highly reactive atom of oxygen to many common toxins, such as the carcinogens in tobacco smoke and charcoal-grilled meat. This addition of "reactivity" in the toxin makes it more susceptible to further processing by the liver's Phase II enzymes, which actually neutralize the dangerous chemical.

The cancer-fighting chemicals from cabbage and similar vegetables, however, do not act independently of a complex series of proteins the liver itself makes. These proteins are coded in not just one gene, but at least two different genes known as GSTM1 and GSTT1. Fifty percent of people do not have a GSTM1 gene. Forty percent of people do not have a GSTT1 gene. This means that for fifty to ninety percent of all humans on earth, ITCs are of limited value. Eating these vegetables simply does not do them a whole lot of good. For at least 10 per cent of the human population, however, vegetables in the cabbage family are truly cancer-protective. Now and then, they may even be a good cancer treatment.

Don't rely on a single "natural" intervention for cancer, and don't neglect medical treatment to pursue natural treatments that, like drugs, may not work for you. Beat cancer with ever tool available for you. Combine the best available medical treatment with the best available natural therapies.

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