Skip the Chemo?

For some, the 'cure' may do more harm than good

Sherry Holtry was a young mother of two little girls when she was diagnosed with breast cancer about five years ago. Her diagnosis shocked her and her family — she had always maintained a healthy diet, and there was no history of breast cancer in her genetics.

She immediately began treatments, including chemotherapy.

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Chemotherapy is a general term that covers a multitude of drugs. It began as a treatment for cancer in the 1940s, when doctors used nitrogen mustard on their patients. Since then, the drugs have evolved and now include some advanced techniques, such as biologic response modifiers, hormone therapy, and monoclonal antibodies. More than 100 drugs are used in chemo treatments, and the care is tailored for specific needs like shrinking tumors, controlling cancer proliferation, or destroying latent cancer cells that are leftover from surgery.

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But for all its advances, chemo is basically just poison to the body, and it hits patients hard. It ruins patients’ hair, teeth, nails, and complexion — and it throws wave after wave of nausea. Holtry accepted the treatments because it kept her cancer at bay, “but it makes the general quality of life just unbearable,” she said.

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She lost her appetite, quit eating, and was continually exhausted. It also affected her brain function.

“I had trouble thinking,” she said. “I had a really foggy intellect for a while, and it took about three years for me to recover.”

A promising study suggests that at least some patients will receive more harm than help from chemo and may be able to skip the poisonous medicine altogether.

Now Holtry’s cancer has returned and spread to her lungs and spinal column. But this second time around, she has opted out of the chemo.

“Right now, I’m considered terminal,” she said, pausing. “There’s no way the doctors can guarantee that the chemo will kill all the cancer cells.”

Knowing this, Holtry has chosen the kind of life that will allow her to spend more quality time with her husband, Greg, and their two daughters, ages 9 and 5.

“I know that if I had chosen to have chemo months ago,” she said, “I would already be gone. It would have worn me down.”

Related: Conquering Cancer

According to a 2004 survey, nearly half of U.S. medical schools require their doctors follow an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath, which states, “I will take care that (my patients) suffer no hurt or damage.” Considering the amount of hurt and damage that can come from chemotherapy, it’s no surprise that doctors and researchers continue to look for a new type of cancer treatment that will lessen — or, perhaps, even eliminate — the need for chemo.

New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine may do just that.

For 10 years, doctors have been using a genetic test called Oncotype DX to determine whether women with certain types of breast cancer needed to undergo chemotherapy after having other treatments. The study involves 10,000 women who had been diagnosed with a common form of breast cancer. About 16 percent of them scored low on the Oncotype DX test and were spared the chemo. Instead, they received only the anti-hormone therapy that was the standard for this type of cancer.

Doctors and scientists are making advances in nutrition and lifestyle that will help to prevent and treat cancer.

Five years later, those women in the low-risk group were 99 percent less likely to develop breast cancer again, though chemo wasn’t part of treatment.

For many cancer patients who have said chemo treatments are worse than the disease, the new study holds a lot of promise. The results show that at least some patients will receive more harm than help from chemo and may be able to skip the poisonous medicine altogether.

Dr. Lisa Benya, founder of CURE Malibu Medical, a concierge medical practice, told LifeZette that tests such as Oncotype DX can help doctors see the whole picture of a patient.

“Tests like this show great promise,” she said. “We can use this test and take a close look at the individuals lifestyle and family history to help create a personalized plan for recovery. All the data we can obtain will make treatments more effective.”

And even chemotherapy is getting more bearable, Benya said.

“You can’t make a blanket statement about chemo,” she said. “Every single type of cancer has its own treatment and prognosis. Not all chemotherapy treatments are toxic and bad either. There are some that are even palatable to the patients.”

Oncotype DX is considered the industry standard only for a certain type of breast cancer. And many patients who take the test fall into the middle or higher categories, and are considered at risk for relapse. Now the research will focus on finding additional ways to personalize treatments for different types of cancer. Already, doctors and scientists are making advances in nutrition and lifestyle that will help to prevent and treat cancer. This is just the next step.

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