Cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells usually occurring when normal cells undergo genetic mutation in a sustained manner and for prolonged periods. There is a failure on the part of the cells to stop dividing and growing and from undergoing a programmed death. There are nearly 200 different types of known cancers. Cancer causes include heredity; tobacco smoke; radiation; ultraviolet radiation from the sun; food toxins; and environmental chemicals. Cancer results when these causes bring about an increase in oncogenes and reduction in tumour suppressor genes, DNA repair genes, and self-destruction genes.
There are five main types of cancer which include: 1) Carcinoma, which results from skin and linings of organs and body systems [adenocarcinoma; basal cell carcinoma; squamous cell carcinoma; and transitional cell carcinoma] 2) Sarcoma, which develops in connective tissue [bone, cartilage, fat, muscle and blood vessels] 3) Leukemia, which develops in the bone marrow 4) Lymphoma and myeloma, which develop in the immune system and 5) Tumours of the brain and spinal cord [glioma, astrocytoma].
Cancer staging is done as per the TNM format (Tumour [T1-4 which indicates increasing severity]; Node 0-3, which indicates progressive migration; and Metastasis [0 or 1]). It is also done as Stages 1 to 4, which again indicate progressively increasing severity. Staging brings about a universal uniformity regarding assessment and treatment of cancer and understanding its prognosis. Treatment of cancer includes different modalities such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, hyperthermia, stem cell transplant, photodynamic therapy and laser.
In spite of multiple available, advanced treatment options, cancer treatment still has many limitations, and recurrence is a major issue. Surgery may not physically remove all the cancer cells; chemotherapy only affects cancer cells which are actively dividing; radiation therapy too does not succeed in destroying all cancer cell DNA; repeated mutations in cancer cells can make these resistant to even highly potent multiple drug therapy. After undergoing full remission with cancer treatment, recurrence is most common within the first two years; the chances of recurrence decrease significantly after five years of remission. Recurrence is very rare after ten years of remission; however – and this a rather unsettling thought – there are still a few cancers which may recur even after ten years of remission.
In this scenario, Ayurvedic treatment has a special role to play in comprehensive cancer management. Currently, it would be safer and more ethical to use Ayurvedic treatment as a complementary (add-on) treatment rather than an alternative (stand-alone) treatment. The current lacunae in cancer treatment can be completely filled up with Ayurvedic medicines. Ayurvedic treatment can significantly boost the immune system and help the body in its fight against the cancer cells. Herbal medicines and herbo-mineral combinations can reduce cancer cell mutations and destroy abnormal cells. Concurrently given Ayurvedic treatment can reduce the known side effects of modern treatments, improve treatment response, help prolong remission, and also help prevent recurrence.
Ayurvedic medicines act on specific organs and body systems; hence Ayurvedic treatment can provide highly targeted cancer therapy as well as protect organs from irreversible damage. This treatment can also be used to turn the tide in cases of drug resistance or failure of modern treatment, or where the side effects of modern medicines necessitate withdrawal of these medicines. Ayurvedic treatment is also very useful in advanced cancer with multiple metastases, or patients with end-stage cancer, to help control the disease, improve quality of life, and improve survival.
It is important to note that maximum benefit can be derived from Ayurvedic treatment if it is started at the earliest, with the first detection and diagnosis of cancer. Most individuals tend to look for Ayurvedic treatment after exhausting all modern treatment options, when the patient is already in the terminal stage, and there is no time for Ayurvedic medicines to work. It is also equally important to avoid self medication or to fall prey to quacks. The same medical regime will not work for all types of cancer; different patients with the same type and similar severity of cancer may respond differently to the same medicine. In fact, even an individual cancer patient on treatment cannot be given the same medicines indefinitely; regular supervision and periodical assessment is required to modify the treatment based upon the progression of the cancer, the response to treatment, and the presence or appearance of co-morbid factors and treatment adverse effects. Treatment decisions for cancer are obviously not simple.
Clinical experience since the last three decades has consistently proved that Ayurvedic treatment for cancer can be safely given concurrently with modern treatment modalities, provided both are done by qualified practitioners from their respective fields. Ayurvedic treatment can make a significant difference in the final outcome while treating cancer. Ayurvedic treatment thus has a definite role to play in cancer management.