Letter to the Editor
Prof. Donald Weaver wrote an interesting article (Chemistry International, January 2000, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 11—13), wherein he took to task a number of alternative medicine practices. In particular, he cited a number of instances from his own experience where patients ignored standard medical treatment for alternatives that led to their death or serious complications. In the cases he wrote about, it was clear that the patients made very poor choices. However, there are two areas of what some may consider alternative medical practices where the evidence of their benefit is quite clear.
The first of these is the research by David Spiegel, MD, who showed unequivocally1that psychotherapeutic support groups can have beneficial effects on both the mental and physical well-being of the patient. Because the readers of CI may not be aware of Spiegel’s research, even though his seminal paper was published over eleven years ago, I will briefly summarize the work of his group and its outcomes. Spiegel’s initial thesis was that a psychotherapy support group would probably be helpful in easing the burdens of cancer, but would have no effect on the physical outcomes of the disease. They enrolled 87 women who had fourth-stage metastatic breast cancer. Fifty women were in the intervention group and 37 in the control group. All of the women continued to receive whatever medical treatments their doctors recommended. The women in the support group met weekly for one year. They were taught self-hypnosis for pain control, they could share whatever they wished during the meetings, were encouraged to communicate with group members outside of the meetings, and one of the group leaders was a woman who had breast cancer that was in remission.
The ten-year follow-up showed that all of the women in the control group died, and that their average length of survival from the beginning of the study was 18.9 months (SD = 10.8). Three of the women in the support group were still alive ten years later. The 47 women in the support group who died had lived an average 36.6 months (SD = 37.6) from the beginning of the study. This work has been replicated and shows that a psychotherapy support group can have a significant effect on the longevity and quality of life of cancer patients.
The important question here, given the evidence, is the following: "Why does not every oncologist prescribe group psychotherapy for his/her patients?" These support groups are probably more effective than any of the "standard" treatments for fourth-stage metastatic breast cancer. Although there is little evidence for special diets and herbs for helping people with cancer and cardiovascular disease, there is a great deal of evidence that Dr. Dean Ornish’s regimen of low-fat diets, support groups, exercise, and meditation2has a profound effect on the course of cardiovascular disease. Please note that Dr. Ornish does not recommend one diet, but a total lifestyle change in several areas. Ornish’s work has stood the test of time, even though scoffers have pushed it aside as one of those alternative things. Again, the question is as follows: "Why doesn’t every cardiologist encourage his/her patients to follow this regimen?"
My new book3cites the scientific evidence for mind/ body interactions for healing, and emphasizes a multi-modal approach to working with people who have life-challenging diseases. An important question is this: "How much does the placebo effect contribute to both traditional and alternative medicine?" A major component of all double-blind studies is to separate out the ever-present placebo effect from that of the "active" ingredient or treatment. The placebo effect is always significant, and there is a vast literature on it. (A summary of the placebo effect is in Chapter 4 of Reference 3.) Any alternative work, of course, should always be done in cooperation with medical doctors. As scientists, we need to be skeptical and look for scientific proof--such proof is available for the two "alternative" approaches described above.
1. D. Spiegel, J. R. Bloom, H. C. Kraemer, E. Gottheil. Effect of psychosocial treatment on survival of patients with metastatic breast cancer. Lancet 2, 8668, 888—891 (1989).
2. D. Ornish. Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, New York: Ballantine Books (1991).
3. R. Battino. Guided Imagery and Other Approaches to Healing, Crown House Publishing, April 2000. Sincerely yours,
Rubin Battino, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry
MS, Mental Health Counseling
Associate Member, IUPAC Commission on Solubility Data (V.8)
Department of Chemistry, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio
About the article
Published Online: 2009-09-01
Published in Print: 2000-05-01