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“The Cancer Recovery Guide” by Prof. Kerryn Phelps AM.

21 Sep 2015

Reviewed by Dr Peter Thomas

Does not disease rule our existence? Thoreau asked in 1851. In the medically unenlightened days of the mid nineteenth century, he may well have been right. In the early twenty-first century, with medical wonders now freely available yet unimagined then, is the answer still in the affirmative? It probably is, as a diagnosis of cancer is usually life altering and imparts a “nameless dread” in the quietly desperate man, as the author of this book suggests. Along with dementia, cancer is the existential fear of humankind. Of course, once the early threat to physical wellbeing has passed, a degree of normalcy in life may be achieved. Helping to attain and maintain this welcome state for as long as possible is the purpose of this book.

The tools and techniques to achieve this are many, undreamt of in Thoreau’s time, and some unimagined as recently as twenty years ago. They cover conventional and complementary medicine, oriental medicine and philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, reliance on faith, and many more. Naturally, some are controversial. All are explored in varying degrees of detail in this book.

The book is offered in six parts that follow the journey of a patient with cancer, from diagnosis through emotional confusion and changed expectations, specific treatments and their side effects, adjunctive therapies, and lifestyle changes. A seventh part explores the commoner cancers. The chapters are strong, and are written by an expert who displays genuine empathy and understanding. However, some detail is too precise in some sections to appeal to many readers, especially lay; e.g. “acetyl-L-carnitine should be avoided with taxane chemotherapy”.

The section on adjunctive therapies, with divisive topics such as high dose intravenous vitamin C, and botanical agents with strange names and claims, is detailed and will stir a variety of emotions in the breast of medical readers depending on their age and attitude; acceptance, wry amusement, and rejection would not be unexpected. The author acknowledges this, but (correctly) feels the book would be incomplete if the contentious stuff was left out.

There are extensive references but there are many unattributed claims for herbal, mineral and vitamin efficacy based on empirical observations, and some are confusing. For example, what should the worried cancer patient make of bald comments such as; “avoid excessive B vitamins as they can cause jitteriness that exacerbates anxiety. Calcium and magnesium work together and can help with anxiety”. Also, some minutia on the need for extra-soft toothbrushes and avoidance of toothpicks in certain instances might be considered overreach, but this level of detail probably does assist the patient who may not be capable of gaining such insights intuitively.

Parade-ground commands such as “Stop smoking. Right now. Avoid all tobacco products. Forever.” are fine in context but the methods to achieve this end are scattered through the book. Such fragmentation is not uncommon and is acknowledged by the author, but it does prevent an easy flow to the reading.

The author warns against the dangers of self-prescribing but an anxious (desperate) patient, on the advice offered here, will be tempted to self- medicate; after all, there are more suburban herbal remedy and health shops than there are integrative medicine clinics.

Despite such caveats, Professor Phelps is to be commended for her timely and welcome work. The cancer mainstream is changing rapidly, and later editions will surely reflect this.


Published: 21 Sep 2015