Monday, August 13, 2007

Merv Griffin and Prostate Cancer

Sad news today. Merv Griffin died yesterday of prostate cancer. Originally diagnosed in 1996 and treated, the cancer came back and claimed the life of the famed talk show host and brain behind Jeopardy among many other great game shows.

Prostate cancer kills more men than any other disease with the exception of lung cancer. Almost a quarter of a million men are diagnosed with the disease each year and more than 30,000 die from it.

My beach reading during last week's vacation was a wonderful book, Dr. Katz's Guide to Prostate Health: From Conventional to Holistic Therapies, by Aaron E. Katz, the director of Columbia University's "Center for Holistic Urology." I strongly recommend it for everyone, whether you have a prostate yourself or know someone who does. In fact, it would make a great present this holiday season because nothing says "Merry Christmas," quite like a book by a Jewish urologist.

The book is a study in the right way to communicate science to the public. Dr. Katz does a marvellous job clearly explaining to those of us with no medical background the processes that are supposed to be occurring when things are working properly and the mechanisms behind what goes wrong when the prostate enlarges and/or cancer develops. I'll admit that any book with the word "holistic" in the title makes me nervous because there are so many charlatans who hide snake oil behind it, but this book does a wonderful job separating "the hope from the hype," as he puts it, explaining the results of the scientific studies that have looked at the various pharmaceutical, surgical, herbal, and lifestyle approaches to dealing with cancer and with general prostate health. Here's a guy who is near the top of the ladder in mainstream medicine giving an honest appraisal of what is happening both the traditional and alternative health communities.

Good health requires active engagement. When talking of prostatitis, inflammation of the prostate, an extremely common development accounting for about a quarter of all urological visits by men, Katz writes,

Bottom line: Men who struggle with chronic prostatitis must tak their health into their own hands. They end up having to become the world's leading experts on their disease, with their doctors running a close second.

[This was actually the funniest line in the book when read in its full context, "When a man ejaculates, his genitournary tract is bathed in a substance called prostatic antibacterial factor. It does a good job killing off pathogens. In a study of men with prostatitis who abstained from sex, a prescription of twice daily masturbation for six months provided moderate to complete relief for 78 percent of the 18 subjects...Bottom line: Men who struggle with chronic prostatitis must take their health into their own hands."]

The idea here is that one cannot depend solely upon your doctor to be completely up to date on all possible effective treatments,
Men in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, commonly use natural medicines and successfully avoid prostate surgery and drugs. Even mainstream urologists are starting to hear about these therapies, because the science is sophisticated and the results are impressive.

Why haven't you heard more about these therapies, then? Because these natural medicines, which cannot be patented, simply aren't profitable enough to the large drug companies. Since drug companies can't make big profits on natural substances, they don't put the money into the research or the advertising necessary to put a natural medicine on the map.

Doctors who want to know more about natural medicines have to do their own homework -- not an easy task when added to the huge amount of allopathic (normal medical) research in which they are expected to stay current, not to mention learning how to do new procedures or finding out about new drugs.
Doctors are swamped. Few realize that they not only see patients during regular hours and off-hours on-call, but also have regular exams to test that they are up-to-date on advances in their field. Keeping current in the advances of mainstream medicine is a daunting task. Add to that, the fact that drug reps are constantly knocking on the office door to meet with them to give them free pens, memo pads, and information about the latest pharmaceuticals, and the additional fact that there is, of course, a natural bias against these hippy-dippy approaches because medicine has gotten better over time at dealing with most ailments, so why look backwards to what we did when we weren't as good at treating the problem.

Some of these remedies are old wives's tales, others aren't. Some are extremely effective, others not so much. The problem is that most of us have no way of telling one from the other and the people who can aren't paying too much attention because the system is set up so that they can't and/or won't. That's why this book is so helpful. It is very much pro-traditional medicine, but in a way that makes you realize that your health is something that you can effect by small changes in your everyday life (he types while eating his cranberries, blueberries, and pumpkin seeds). If there is a silver lining in the passing of Merv Griffin, maybe it'll be some attention paid to helping ourselves avoid this all too common disease.