Excess, Deficiency and Cancer

Let’s be honest: For the past week, I’ve been asking everyone I cross paths with to go out and buy my book. BUT WHEN I HAVEN’T BEEN DOING THAT, I’ve been thinking about what Chinese Medicine has to offer.

When a client comes in to see an acupuncturist or Doctor of Oriental Medicine, one of the first assessments that we make is a very simple one — excess or deficient? In other words, is the patient sick because they’re lacking something or is it because they have too much of something? It sounds simple, but making this distinction can be profoundly beneficial. It can even save a life.

For a patient with cancer, this rubric determines the course of treatment. If someone is excess, you would, in the archaic language of Traditional Chinese Medicine, begin “clearing fire toxins.” (How that is done is too big a topic for today’s post.)  However, if someone is deficient, you would attempt to subdue the pathological process while you “tonify.” Only once the patient regains their strength would you try to clear  those fire toxins.

Even if you’re not interested in medicine, you’ve probably heard of people with cancer dying because of the treatment. Chemotherapy is so toxic that it could kill you, not just shrink your tumor. Who is more likely to experience this outcome? I’m obviously going out on a limb here to suggest that it might be people with deficiencies. There is currently no way of measuring excess or deficiency within the western paradigm — and certainly no double-blind studies about outcomes for excess or deficient patients. (The whole idea deserves a LOL, no?) But it’s common sense, people. Patients without a lot of strength (qi in TCM terms) are going to be less able to withstand treatments that require a lot of strength.

Here’s a story that illustrates the benefit of making this distinction. A colleague of mine, a well-respected acupuncturist working out of Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, had a client with stomach cancer who sought her opinion before beginning chemotherapy. My colleague assessed her as being deficient and advised her to regain her strength (with acupuncture and herbs) before beginning treatment. Once my colleague determined that her patient was strong enough, via pulse, tongue and other forms of diagnosis, she sent her off to the Western doctor. But then a funny thing happened. The oncologist could no longer find any trace of cancer. What had been a four-inch tumor had vanished.

That’s not to say that acupuncturists achieve miraculous results with every patient, but it should suggest that outcomes for patients might be improved if the western world borrowed this basic parameter from the East.

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