Friday, November 09, 2012

western medicine's blind spots

One thing breast cancer treatment has taught me is that Western medicine has its faults and limits. Yes, I probably should have realized this earlier. But my father is a doctor, and I grew up with the sense that he could fix anything, which slid into a general faith in the profession. Western medicine always solved my meager medical needs before, and Western cancer treatment saved my life. Now, though, I’m disillusioned:

Tamoxifen is the hormone therapy pill that many women with breast cancer take for five years after the initial treatment regimen (surgery, radiation, often chemotherapy) ends. Taking tamoxifen prevents estrogen from binding to cells in the body. For people with estrogen receptor-positive tumors—meaning the hormone was involved in activating cancer cells—the idea is to prevent any lurking enemies from growing and spreading.

But keeping estrogen at bay causes side effects, too, because by decreasing its ability to fulfill its normal roles, the drug is essentially inducing a temporary menopause. So, hot flashes. I’m hot most all the time. That’s not unpleasant in winter weather, but it’s torturous during, say, weeklong heat waves (I’m looking at you, last summer). I’ve heard other women say they couldn’t sit still on tamoxifen, grew depressed on it, and in older women it can cause blood clots and uterine cancer. (Fun fact: Most cancer treatments increase other kinds of cancer risk. Win some/lose some?)

Effexor, an antidepressant, is commonly prescribed to help ease hot flashes. So when I complained to my doctor, she offered to write me a prescription for a rather hefty dosage. She told me to try taking vitamin E. I didn’t want to put more chemicals into my body. There were no other solutions forthcoming from my medical team.

Then, via dumb luck, I learned about You Can Thrive, a sliding-scale wellness center for breast cancer survivors. Moments after we met, the founder took my hand, dripped a bit of peppermint essential oil onto my fingers and told me to rub it on the back of my neck. I cooled down immediately—no drugs, no unnatural interventions. I’m also using castor packs—oil-soaked cloths covered with a heating pad—to reduce the my scars’ redness and tenderness. It was recommended by a knowledgeable yoga teacher, and it’s working.

Why aren’t these simple, natural, cheap solutions common knowledge?   


  1. One of my favorite perfumers wrote a blog post about treating a child's horrific ear infection with lavender essential oil here:

    In another post he offers a free download of medicinal uses of six essential oils. I've used some of his remedies very effectively.
    (Look for the post called free aromatherapy course.)

  2. Oops, he didn't use straight lavender e.o. It was a blend of lavender, geranium and peppermint. The download he offers is here:

    And yes, he mentions using peppermint to relieve heat.

  3. Having had the pleasure of being at your side as you applied that peppermint oil, I can attest to the look on your face!

    Time to get this info out there.....