Jennifer Miriguay, a breast cancer patient, receives acupuncture alongside conventional cancer care. (CBC)
With every poke of her acupuncturist's needle, breast cancer patient Jennifer Miriguay says her pain begins to melt away.
"You can just start to feel a calmness and just a serenity that you hadn't felt prior to coming into a session," she says.
Miriguay turned to acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine after her breast cancer returned, despite aggressive medical treatment.
"With a stage four diagnosis, there's no stage five. The rules of the game have changed. My game plan needs to change," she says.
The alternative therapy Miriguay receives at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre complements chemotherapy and other conventional cancer treatments. The clinic offers cancer patients yoga, psychotherapy, naturopathic medicine, reiki and intravenous vitamin therapy, among other paid services.
Although many of the treatments are not supported by scientific evidence, the clinic's services are in demand, according to naturopathic doctor Dugald Seely.
Research into efficacy of alternative treatments
"The public is clamouring for this kind of care, and we also need to do the research alongside of it," he says.
To that end, Seely is collaborating with his brother, thoracic surgeon Dr. Andrew Seely of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, in a study to determine if natural remedies combined with conventional treatments improve outcomes for cancer patients.
Other major universities, such as McGill University in Montreal, the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the University of Toronto are partnering with natural health practitioners to study the efficacy of alternative treatments and learn more about them.
Officials at Doctors at Brampton Civic Hospital in Ontario aren't waiting for the evidence. The hospital is offering the services of naturopaths and naturopathic students in a ward of the hospital that's otherwise unused in the evenings.
The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine is picking up the tab, so neither the hospital nor patients pay for the services that include acupuncture.
Naturopath Jonathan Tokiwa says the services are offered in the name of breaking down barriers between health care's two worlds.
"A lot of times patients may be afraid of how they would be seen by their primary health provider. They may be afraid of the resistance that they might encounter [from their physicians] because they are seeking complementary care," he said.
But there's a reason many physicians are resistant, according to cardiologist Dr. Christopher Labos. He says most alternative therapies have little more than a placebo effect.
Skeptic sees dangers in alternative therapies
As an epidemiologist who studies public health outcomes, Dr. Labos is an outspoken skeptic of alternative therapies. He says too often physicians don't mind if their patients seek unproven natural remedies because the treatments are usually considered harmless.
"Scientists and the medical community have to take a stand, because these patients are essentially being fleeced out of their money. They're being sold products and services that don't actually work," Labos says. "For reiki to work, all that we know about the physical universe has to be untrue."
But the vice-president of medical affairs at Brampton Civic Hospital, Dr. Naveed Mohammad, defends partnering with alternative health care practitioners.
"What better way to try to see if there's any evidence out there for this type of medicine than to really work with them?" he asks.
Dr. Mohammad says there is an inherent risk in shunning natural medicine.
Where's the science?
"What you don't want is some practitioner in some alternative medicine practicing somewhere in the corner without any light being shone on them and I think that's the more dangerous way of doing things."
Still, Dr. Labos says promoting alternative health care hurts science-based medicine. He's frustrated when he sees universities and hospitals continue to seek out collaboration with what he calls practitioners of disproven treatments, even if it's in the name of research.
"People get into medicine to make patients feel better. So it's very seductive to say we'll give you reflexology, we'll give you massage therapy, we'll give you homeopathy. But the problem is, by legitimizing stuff that doesn't work, you then dilute your own credibility."