Cancer is our nation’s most feared diagnosis. It’s also the second leading cause of death (after heart disease), claiming more than 550,000 lives a year.

Cancer is not one disease. Rather, it’s one name for more than 200 diseases, all of which develop similarly. Initially, something goes wrong with cell reproduction. Instead of dividing normally, cells that become cancerous reproduce wildly, producing abnormal growths-what we call tumors. Tumor cells spread (metastasize) around the body, forming more tumors. If tumor growth can’t be stopped, it interferes with vital body processes.

Often, cancer can be detected early, when tumors are tiny and have not spread. Doctors agree that early diagnosis is best because small, local tumors tend to be most treatable. But no matter how early it’s caught, no one wants to hear a doctor say, “I’m sorry, it’s cancer.”

Because cancer is not one disease but many, survival depends to a great extent on the type of cancer you have. When diagnosed early, cervical cancer, testicular cancer, skin cancers, and most childhood cancers are very treatable-in fact, curable. But other cancers-including those of the pancreas, liver, and lungs-usually don’t respond as well to treatment.

“A cancer diagnosis is like being pushed out of a helicopter into a jungle war with no training, no maps, and no idea how to survive,” says Michael Lerner, Ph.D., cofounder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, an organization based in Bolinas, California, which hosts weeklong educational retreats for people with cancer.

In 1981, Dr. Lerner, a former Yale professor, learned that his father, Max Lerner, had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the same cancer that killed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Though the doctors predicted that Max Lerner had only a short time to live, the prediction was in error. Using only mainstream chemotherapy, Dr. Lerner’s father survived for 11 years.

During his father’s illness, the younger Lerner became fascinated by the then-acrimonious war of words between mainstream oncology and the alternative cancer therapies. He used the money from a MacArthur Foundation genius grant to travel around the world exploring alternative cancer centers. He became convinced that both conventional and alternative approaches have value. The best results, he concluded, usually emerge from a blending of conventional and alternative medicine.

As a result of his research, Dr. Lerner helped launch the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, which teaches people with cancer how to deal with the disease.

In the Cancer Help Program, training includes a vegetarian diet, daily exercise, daily meetings with a support group, and massage and other relaxation therapies. For more information, contact the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. P. O. Box 316, Bolinas, CA 94924.

Treating cancer also involves a big dose of hope. Expectations for long-term cancer survival have increased dramatically in recent decades. Before World War II, surviving with cancer 5 years after diagnosis was considered the exception. Today, it’s the rule. About 60 percent of people who have been diagnosed with cancer survive at least 5 years, and many live much longer.

About 40 percent of Americans are diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, but only about 20 percent die from it. In fact, some 8.2 million living Americans are cancer survivors. If you walk into a room of 33 people, chances are that one of them is a cancer survivor.

“After decades of frustration, we’ve flllally turned the corner,” says James Dougherty, M.D., deputy physician in chief for clinical affairs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

What has turned things around? “Not a miracle cure-at least not yet,” Dr. Dougherty says. “But little by little, we’ve made incremental progress against the disease. We’ve learned more about how it works, and we’ve gotten better at preventing it, detecting it early, and treating it. We still have a long way to go, of course. But the death rate is falling, which is very good news.”

Since 1990, hundreds of studies have been published supporting the value of alternative therapies for cancer treatment. The evidence clearly shows that the best results-longer cancer-free survival and improved quality of life-come from blending mainstream oncology and alternative therapies. As a result, blended cancer therapy is on the rise. By some estimates, up to 64 percent of cancer patients try at least one alternative approach.

No matter what kind of cancer you have, the experts agree that a step-by-step approach is the way to go.

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