Vancouver library worker Todd Wong knows better than most that life occasionally delivers a rude surprise. In 1989, Wong came back from a trip to New York feeling rundown. At first, his doctor diagnosed a recurrent viral flu. Only after visiting an oncologist did Wong, then 29 years old, learn that he had a germ-cell tumour related to testicular cancer. It required emergency chemotherapy to deal with a growth in his chest the size of a large grapefruit.
“The first night I’m in the hospital, the doctor tells my parents, ”˜There is a 60-percent chance your son will survive because we only discovered this very, very late,’ ” Wong told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “I was 29 years old, really active, and the doctors never suspected anything.”
Wong, a fifth-generation Chinese Canadian, was visited regularly by his mother, who wanted to give her son therapeutic touching to help him heal. She asked about doing energy work known as Reiki, because this is what she had practised at home. “The doctor told her, ”˜If you want to do that, you can take your son out of the hospital,’ ” Wong recalled.
His mother kept coming to the hospital every night to surreptitiously practise Reiki on her son, and Wong’s grandmother brought affirmations from a book by Louise Hay called You Can Heal Your Life. Later, he called a psychology instructor at Capilano College (now Capilano University) to learn how to practise visualization. When he was well enough to attend Simon Fraser University, every course he took had a focus on illness and health. “I did directed studies on the relationship between stress and illness,” Wong said. “I learned that psychoneuroimmunology [study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems] was only coined as a term in 1980.”
Two decades after Wong’s recovery, he sees much greater cooperation taking place between allopathic and complementary health practitioners. The B.C. Cancer Agency is backing a complementary medicine education and outcomes program, which is examining how to safely combine complementary approaches with traditional cancer treatments. The team, led by principal researcher and UBC nursing professor Lynda Balneaves, is exploring the most effective ways to support cancer patients in making decisions in this area. In addition, the researchers hope to enhance health professionals’ understanding of this area.
Meanwhile, the U.S.–based National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, has been conducting scientific research on complementary and alternative healing practices for 10 years. It also trains researchers in this area and disseminates information to allopathic practitioners. For example, it has noted that acupuncture has demonstrable therapeutic benefits for low back pain, and that tai chi may benefit older adults with osteoarthritis in the knee.
During his recovery, Wong visited naturopath and acupuncturist Larry Chan, one of the founders of Integrative Healing Arts on Vancouver’s West Side, who helped him think “outside the box” about the origins of illness. Wong is convinced that health is about finding balance and looking at the body system in a holistic framework rather than focusing exclusively on germs or viruses. Integrative is one of several facilities—including the Broadway Wellness Centre, Cross Roads Clinics, and Finlandia Natural Pharmacy and Health Centre—that offer an interdisciplinary and complementary approach to health care.
Chan’s niece, Karen Lam, started working at Integrative as a receptionist in 1986. Some family members were horrified when she began studying traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the early 1990s. They demanded to know if Lam, a fifth-generation Vancouverite, was going to spend the rest of her life working in a herbal-medicine shop in Chinatown. “It’s only been in the last three years that I’ve shaken off that self-imposed doubt about what I do in the eyes of the medical profession,” she said during an interview in her office.
She describes acupuncture as “attuning the body to healing itself”, and said it shouldn’t be described as a “cure”. In addition to acupuncture, TCM also focuses on a proper diet, lifestyle, and herbal remedies to enhance the body’s capacity to heal itself. “I assess somebody by their posture, their demeanour, their expression, the light in their eyes, the colour of their skin, their hair—just their overall vitality,” Lam said, adding that she uses TCM in the areas of conception, fertility, and stress.
There’s no shortage of skeptics who are quick to pounce on alternative treatments. In their 2008 book Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, complementary-health critics Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst reported that acupuncture burst into western consciousness after New York Times reporter James Reston received the treatment as an anesthetic in China in 1971. Reston later wrote a laudatory article about it in his newspaper. “The American physicians who visited China in the early 1970s were not accustomed to deception or political manipulation, so it took a couple of years before their naive zeal for acupuncture turned to doubt,” Singh and Ernst wrote. “Eventually, by the mid-1970s, it had become clear to many of them that the use of acupuncture as a surgical anesthetic in China had to be treated with skepticism.”
Wong, however, attributed his cancer recovery, in part, to his mother’s reliance on TCM. “We did it all on our own because there were no support programs back then,” he noted.