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Tess Livingstone Reports

Tess Livingstone, a recovered cancer sufferer, reports on one legacy of visionary surgeon Chris O’Brien

The Australian Newspaper June 13th-14th livingstonet@theaustralian.com.au

For cancer patients and survivors, myself included, who appreciate the implications, Kevin Rudd’s commitment to Chris O’Brien’s vision of an integrative cancer centre at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney feels like a godsend. While it would be difficult to better the standard of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatments provided in Australia, many patients have long had a sense that some overseas cancer specialists-not naturopaths or other alternative practitioners-especially in Austria and Germany have branched out into new, broader avenues of treatment not generally available here.

Patients also hope the integrative centre would make access to the most promising mainstream clinical trails easier. Getting rid of cancer is one challenge. Making sure it does not return is another.

At present for instance, Abagovomab, a promising new drug to ward off the recurrence of ovarian cancer, a significant challenge for oncologists, is being trialed in 150 centers in Germany, the US, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Hungary and Belgium. Short of moving overseas, it is a no-go for Australians.

As O’Brien, who died last week from brain cancer and was fare welled at a state funeral this week, said in July last year, the goal has to be a world-class cancer centre in each state, networked to allow patients to participate in trials of new treatments. Integrated centers, he acknowledged, could improve care by ensuring cancer doctors knew about and had access to all cutting-edge treatments. The few Australians with cancer who have traveled overseas in search of different treatments, or obtained vaccines or individually tailor-made vitamin mineral supplements based on complex pathology, would dearly love to see them available here. Spending a week of one’s hard earned leave hooked up to space age technology, however incredible, instead of seeing more of Europe, feels sad. Even without traveling overseas, many other Australians with cancer have delved into alternative treatments from naturopaths, some general practitioners and with the help of the internet: a dangerous practice given the risks of overdoses or picking the wrong supplements. An integrative centre, where the best of all remedies, conventional and otherwise, can be tested, used and made available will be incredibly helpful. That many local doctors question the efficacy of many treatments offered overseas is understandable: Australian practitioners are justifiably cautious and demand proper clinical trials before adopting new treatments.

My surgeon, for instance warned me against the possible side effects of some of the heat treatments offered in Germany. Another of his patients, whose cancer was under control, returned from overseas with severe kidney damage after such treatments. All of which is a good reason to get proper trials of the most promising treatment underway without delay, or to seek out studies already completed and available in other languages, mainly German or even Japanese.

As a deeply grateful survivor of a lethal cancer beaten by skilled surgery and effective chemotherapy, for which no follow up treatments were advised, it does feel reassuring to take out a little extra insurance by the way of some fresh organic juices, a few supplements, not many, some of them to counteract severe individual deficiencies. My doctor says at worst they are doing no harm. It would be irresponsible to detail these. If there is one thing I have learned it is that no two cancer patients’ needs are the same. Picking and choosing from the hundreds of supplements available, without expert guidance, can do more harm than good.

O’Brien talked about taking selenium, evening primrose oil, omega-3 oil and antioxidant called glutathione. These names will be familiar to many patients, as will others, especially vitamin D, deficiencies of which can cause problems, vitamin C, the Tallberg minerals for ovarian cancer patients, coenzyme-Q10, flax seed oil combined with cottage cheese, and others. Tracking down some of what the overseas doctors recommend is a task worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Try asking the local chemist for propolis drops, made from a substance produced by bees.

There are new things for Australia to explore. In Austria in January I saw cancer patients, some in remission and some not, being treated with a machine that, in the simplest of layman’s terms, purportedly reads the energy levels in the cells, with the capacity, apparently, to boost those that are deficient. It came from the Russian cosmonaut program. Another treatment involved a machine that pumps three frequencies of lasers into the patients’ bodies after they’ve been given multi-vitamin infusions, supposedly on search and destroy missions of any stray cancer cells.

I am not qualified to comment on the efficacy of the machines, which is precisely why I hope experts from the integrated cancer centre can investigate them and if they are worthwhile, make them available here. In the global village, we all need the best of what is available.

For the sake of the one in two Australian men and one in three Australian women diagnosed with cancer before age 85, the challenges ahead for the new centre, which nobody understood better than the late, great O’Brien are immense. In a complex field with a multitude of opinions, visionary leadership will be the key.