Why Alternative Medicine Just Isn't Enough Sometimes

A few days ago, a dear friend and herbal medicine colleague of mine died. She was one of the most dedicated students in my herbal program, the one who finished all of her coursework long before the rest of us, the one who sat quietly in the back of the room yet always knew the right answer. Her love for all creatures inspired her to a life of activism and her commitment to herbal medicine was deep, quiet, and persistent.

She ate a healthy diet and did so many of the "right" things. She was a wise herbalist who capably helped herself and her clients using plant-based medicine and plant-based food.

And she was the last person I expected to lose to cancer this year. When I saw her last in May, she seemed bright and dedicated as ever—though she had lost a significant amount of weight. In fact, this may have been the only outward sign of her illness. (Our culture praises thinness so much, especially in women, that I now shudder to remember the compliments she received on her "new body," which was silently being ravaged by cancer.)

Now, my colleagues and I are grieving our friend and sorting through the feelings that arise when something like this happens. How could she have gotten so sick, so quickly? We first heard the news right after she received her diagnosis. Three weeks later, she was gone.

The cancer that killed my friend was thought to have started in her kidneys or her ovaries—both kinds of cancer are notoriously sneaky and hard to diagnose. Both kinds of cancer can happen whether or not you eat a healthy diet or take herbal remedies.

And both kinds of cancer would be really easy to miss if you don't have a doctor who keeps track of your health. I don't know for certain, but I can't help but wonder if she could have received her diagnosis earlier. So many of the people in my circle these days regard mainstream medicine with so much disgust and distrust and tend to avoid seeking the care of conventional physicians. I don't know for certain, but it wouldn't surprise me if she didn't seek help from a doctor until last month. By that time, the cancer was in her bones, her lungs, her kidneys, and her abdomen.

I can't help but wonder if the outcome could have been different. I can't help but wonder what might have happened if my friend had a good ongoing relationship with a conventional doctor who could have caught this earlier. I'm not writing this message to frighten you or to discredit my field of alternative and complementary medicine. I really believe in the power of prevention, natural medicine, and a healthy lifestyle. I also know that even despite our best efforts, our bodies are vulnerable. Our vulnerability is part of our humanity and part of what makes life precious.

Even though I am an herbalist and passionate about natural medicine, I am a committed believer in the power of conventional medicine in the hands of caring, wise physicians (of which there are many). I'm thrilled that the Affordable Care Act will make it possible for all of us to have health care coverage if we want it. Even though I prefer to use herbs, food, and lifestyle as my first line of defense, I would never want to be without a conventional doctor on my health care team. There are times when the conventional options truly are best.

Modern medicine gives you access to amazing diagnostics that can catch problems long before they become visible to the naked eye. Conventional medicine gives you a range of options—and whether you choose to take them or not, I believe that you have the right to the full spectrum of care that's available to you.

My friend died a healer. She left a powerful example of how to face death with courage and dignity. I also believe that as someone who was a lifelong teacher of natural medicine and healing she would want us to find some kind of medicine in her story.

One of the most important lessons I'm drawing from her story is about the importance of regular screenings and preventative care, not only through natural means, but also through modern diagnostics. If it's been a while since your last physical, I encourage you to reach out to conventional medicine again.

I know that it can be hard to trust for some of us who've been burned before, but I promise that it's possible to interact with conventional medicine as an empowered patient and get the kind of care that you deserve.

Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your doctor's visit without compromising your vision and values:

1. Find a physician who is open to alternative healing.

Ask your complementary and alternative providers if they know of any local physicians who are open-minded about natural medicine. If they're reputable, they'll have one or more doctors that they refer their clients to when things get dicey, and often they're clued-in to the doctors in your area who share your values.

2. Before your doctor's appointment, make a list of your concerns.

Even the most wonderful doctors are under a lot of pressure to see their patients in a shorter period of time than many complementary providers allow, but if you come prepared with a list of questions and concerns you can still get all of your needs addressed in the time allowed.

3. Ask about your doctor's comfort level with alternative healing methods.

If you're facing a health crisis, ask your doctor how comfortable she would be monitoring you, even if you decide to try complementary and alternative methods first.

Many doctors will be willing to follow you with lab work and diagnostics for a defined period of time while you try alternative methods, but since they're bound by a defined standard of care (and can be sued if they don't follow it and something bad happens) they may only feel comfortable doing this for a short period of time, or only if your symptoms are mild. If you ask the question, most doctors will be upfront with you about their comfort level.

4. Remember, not all doctors are pill-pushers who fail to treat you as a whole person.

If you haven't found one who clicks with you yet, consider making it a healthy New Year's Resolution to search out a primary care doctor who can be there for you if and when you need it. Herbal medicine and I will be here for you—and we work best when we're part of a bountiful buffet of health care options from which you can choose. Serve yourself the full meal and let your doctor (as well as your herbalist) help you plan the satisfying health care menu that will work best for you.

So, if it's been a while since you've seen your doctor, or if you're overdue for an annual exam—use the four steps above to search out a doctor who can be part of your health care team.

Do it in honor of Darcy, my dear friend who left us far too soon.

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