Traditional Chinese Medicine Approaches to Cancer - Harmony in the Face of the Tiger
Henry McGrath Published by Singing Dragon Press, 2009 Paperback 250pp Price: $18.95
(Reviewed by Charles Buck, EJOM Vol. 6 No. 5)
This book is aimed primarily at cancer patients and medical professionals who want to be better informed about Chinese medicine (CM) and the contribution it can make to cancer care. It also has a place in CM practitioner education. Author Henry McGrath practises acupuncture and CM at a long-established holistic cancer care centre in Bristol, UK.
The opening chapters present the standard take on general TCM theory – stressing its holistic credentials and filled out with the usual perspectives on qi, yin-yang, causes of illness, wu xing, ba gang and so on. At times McGrath risks bafflement by offering a little too much information for most general readers, for example the detail on the jing luo pathways could have been omitted without loss.
The author’s voice is reasoned and pleasant if a touch old-fashioned, reminiscent more of the early Western texts on acupuncture written by naturopaths than more recent offerings. Included are the familiar quotes from classical sources such as the Nei Jing that lend an element of poetry together with suggestions of the wisdom of antiquity. McGrath matches quite well what an open-minded patient would both expect and want to hear about CM; a medicine that appears reasonable, plausible and holistic. A highlight occurred for me when McGrath, himself a committed Christian, succeeds in affectionately summarising the world views of Confucius, Lao Zi and Chuang Zi.
The chapter on acupuncture opens well but then drifts into that old Newton-New Physics, mind-body Cartesian duality thing before then slipping headlong into even more speculative territory: ‘Acupuncture points could be the interface between our own personal internal energy systems and the wider systems around us. In other words they are not just treating the person they are modulating her relationship with the outer world. At the ultimate level there could be a kind of universal matrix within which all organisms exist.’
Maybe, but is this really illuminating insight or just flowery and unnecessary indulgence? I suspect this passage will mean little to most of the readership. A book pitched at cancer sufferers and their ‘conventional’ carers might do well to downplay some of the more esoteric and potentially alienating ideas.
Luckily, in the rest of the book we cut to the chase and discuss what people most want to know, what can this medicine do? The chapter What can acupuncture offer those with cancer? presents a readable digest of research in pain control, chemo and radiotherapy-induced damage such as immune injury, dry mouth, nausea and sickness, and so on. McGrath succeeds in identifying a good portion of the right research material. The same goes for the lengthy section on Chinese herbs that offers readers a lucid and fairly in-depth account of the role that Chinese herbal medicine can play in cancer care. Included is a reasonable round-up of the research – sufficient in this context but far from the more exhaustive coverage that would be needed in a practitioner manual. He concludes with similarly neat overviews of dietary medicine and medical qi gong as applied to cancer care.
McGrath’s patient-oriented focus is shown in various handy hints about identifying suitable practitioners. I can’t agree, though, with his statement that BAcC registered practitioners: ‘will have completed a first degree level training (although by no means an actual BA or BSc degree)…’
It is not clear where McGrath trained but I believe it is correct to say that the majority of BAcC-recognised courses are actual university accredited bachelors or masters degrees. I feel it is important that patients and the public generally should know this so we can avoid misapprehensions about academic attainment in our profession.
So, niggles aside, this is a creditable and much-needed offering that fills a significant gap in the literature. Much contained here is the hard-won knowledge that practitioners who are experienced in CM cancer care acquire with much time and effort. This is the sort of material we often have to convey to patients to help them become involved in the treatment process and to feel assured that the CM path is a viable one. It can be a struggle to convey such information verbally and so in presenting this book McGrath has done us a service. Apart from saving our breath his book also helps us avoid the danger of our explanations being perceived as hard sell.
In sum, Traditional Chinese Medicine Approaches to Cancer succeeds in providing a convenient way of explaining to cancer patients what we do and why it should be seen as the informed patients realistic CAM option. We can now say: “Read this for next week so you understand what we are doing”. It also has a place in the education of practitioners who only occasionally see cancer patients as it provides a basic overview of cancer care in CM without becoming too bogged down in detail. A resource worth having.
Charles Buck After a medical science degree, Charles Buck progressed to acupuncture study in the early 1980s. Beginning Chinese herbal medicine and Mandarin study in 1983, he set up one of the very first CHM pharmacies in the UK. Since then he has completed an MSc and has made many contributions to TCM education in the West including lecturing on TCM cancer care for 20 years. He is currently helping to develop the TCM CPD web resource qi-key.com.