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Art transforms into compassion

TCM - Controversy

Based on the evidence obtained from randomized clinical trials, some Chinese herbs have shown to be beneficial especially when combined with conventional treatment. Since 1949, the Chinese government has supported the use of both traditional and Western medicine. Chinese herbal medicine first came to widespread attention in the United States in the 1970s, when President Nixon visited China. Today, there are more than 25 colleges of Oriental Medicine in the United States.

Despite our Chinese heritage, many local cancer patients remain fearful and skeptical about the efficacy of Chinese medicine. This is because Chinese medicine has not yet been "endorsed" by the local medical institutions. Some oncologists have also warned patients against the use of Chinese medicine.

The two commonly asked questions are given as follows:

(1) Will TCM clash with conventional treatment?

(2) The majority of local oncologists are against the use of Chinese medicine alongside conventional treatment. Why is this so?

Answer to Question 1 - Will TCM clash with conventional treatment?

If one is seeking TCM treatment from an experienced and skilful TCM practitioner, the latter will always exercise care while prescribing herbal medicine to be consumed during chemotherapy. If the combination is not ideal, there will be tell-tale signs. When such problems surface, the doctor will advise the patient to stop taking the herbal medicine immediately. So far, no case of death has been reported as being a result of the combination of western and Chinese medicine.

In one incident, an ovarian cancer patient developed sore eyes and was hesitant to heed her doctor's advice as she was doubtful that the cause was due to the Chinese medicine. Although I shared her sentiments, I encouraged her to heed her doctor's advice. Prior to her chemotherapy, she approached me for advice on TCM treatment. I advised her to strengthen her immune system by taking Chinese medicine before going for her chemotherapy. Hence, it was all right for her to stop taking the Chinese medicine temporarily during the last few chemotherapy sessions. After the completion of her chemotherapy, she resumes taking Chinese medicine.

In another incident, a colon cancer patient went to seek consultation from a TCM practitioner based on a relative's recommendation. She developed a liver infection and was told by her doctor to stop taking the Chinese medicine immediately. Is the Chinese medicine the cause of her liver infection?

A breast cancer patient's experience :

"On liver infection: my oncologist tells me that I can take TCM during chemo if I want, but he will monitor my liver function. If there is a problem with toxicity of drugs, it will show up in the liver. Western chemo drugs are well-documented - effects on the liver will be known and predictable. So any unusual effects on the liver could be the result of TCM."

Many patients feel that no doctor will be pleased to learn of alternative life-saving antidotes that may threaten the "supremacy" of western medicine. When things go wrong, the doctors are also likely to put the blame on any form of complementary methods that their patients might be receiving alongside conventional treatment.

As a result, some patients decided to hide the fact that they were taking Chinese medicine even in instances when they were coping and progressing well during conventional treatment. Some doctors were amazed at the good results, but failed to discover the truth - i.e. the efficacy of Chinese medicine.

However, I always encourage cancer patients to be truthful to their doctors. Lack of communication about TCM treatment and dietary supplements creates an information gap between doctors and patients that may result in poor cancer management.

Answer to Question 2 - The majority of local oncologists are against the use of Chinese medicine alongside conventional treatment. Why is this so?

This is a tricky question and I am also eager to know the answer.

Indeed, it was public knowledge that some TCM experts from China were invited to review the cancer cases of some important persons in Singapore. Certainly, this incident affirmed the importance of Chinese medicine in the treatment of cancer. Interestingly, among these experts, one has become "well-known" for his involvement in the treatment of a VIP's cancer. This "bonus" case has brought him "good returns" as many local cancer patients "flock" to him whenever he visits Singapore. "Do patients really benefit from such ad-hoc consultation?"

Some patients shared their experiences with me. Among them, one breast cancer patient had bought an expensive health supplement based on his recommendation. However, she did not consume it after seeking a second opinion from her oncologist in a public hospital. A handsome sum of $600/- was trashed - what a waste of money? Is this an isolated case?

Hopefully, the day will come when our local public medical institutions/hospitals can support the use of both Chinese and Western medicine in the treatment of cancer. If this happens, it will be the greatest gift to people living with cancer in the Remaking of Singapore - receiving true comprehensive cancer care and equal opportunities to fight cancer in their own stride.

Update : In October 2007, a cancer patient shared with me that he consulted this Chinese Professor in a local hotel, and will be consuming Chinese herbal medicine prescribed by him. I reckon it will be more beneficial for him to continue to seek treatment from a local TCM practitioner who is in a better position to closely monitor his illness.

Incidentally, this Chinese Professor has also contracted cancer. Being a 'cancer expert', will he survive cancer? Cancer is a difficult disease. Hence, he may succumb to cancer. If this happens, will he be a loss to local cancer patients? I do not think so.

Word of Advice

Patients must not be forced to accept TCM treatment if they remain skeptical about its efficacy and do not have confidence in TCM practitioners.

However, it is important for them to recognize that when mainstream treatment fails, TCM may offer them better solutions that will lead to a better quality of life.

In Year 2001, one young man approached me for help. His mother was a breast cancer patient who lost confidence and faith in conventional treatment when she had a recurrence of breast cancer. She had experienced the pain and side effects from her previous conventional treatment. As she had no more "worries" or commitment towards her family, she wished for a peaceful death, instead of subjecting herself to another round of "invasive" and "aggressive" treatment that was proposed for her complicated medical condition. I recommended her to see a TCM practitioner who also respected her wish to relieve her symptoms and pain with Chinese medicine instead of receiving conventional treatment that offered no cure but merely served as palliative treatment. In this case, she relied solely on Chinese medicine as a form of palliative care. A few months later, she died peacefully.

In February 2002, a reporter told me that her mother who had advanced stomach cancer was given intravenous feeding (TPN-total parenteral nutrition). She asked if Chinese medicine could help her mother to eat with her mouth. I checked with a TCM practitioner and he was confident that he could help. Indeed the patient was overjoyed to eat with her mouth again, even though the food intake was limited.

Very often, I also receive enquiries from web surfers asking what can they do for their elderly sick relatives when their doctors have nothing else to offer. In the case of elderly cancer patients, it will be advisable to use Chinese medicine that is less "invasive" than conventional treatment, to help prolong their life, relieve their symptoms and help them to die with dignity.


Indeed, Chinese medicine is a "star" performer if only all TCM practitioners are ethical and righteous. Sadly, in our present materialistic society, some TCM practitioners are "opportunists" and will not hesitate to recommend expensive herbs and health supplements to their patients.

It has come to my knowledge that a common remark was made by some overseas and local TCM practitioners about cancer management.

"Since cancer patients are already given the death sentence by their medical doctors, we need not be responsible for their death. If Chinese medicine can save them, we will get the credit. Therefore, it is so much easier to make money from cancer patients."

Sadly, our present society is losing "grip" on the virtues of Propriety, Righteousness, Integrity, and Honour which make up the moral fabric of a society, thereby causing many people to lose their humane personality.

In those stories of ancient famous Chinese Physicians, these great men had chosen the arduous path of becoming doctors because of their love for medicine and desire to save lives. Unlike the commoners, they were contented with their decent lifestyles. Indeed, they were blessed with a pair of "medicine" hands to save lives and not using them for "gold digging".

Nonetheless, it is very common to have such black sheep everywhere. Hence cancer patients and their caregivers must exercise their judgment and seek treatment only from the skilful and responsible TCM practitioners.

To know more about Chinese medicine, please click here.


While receiving conventional treatment at a restructured hospital, my mother also sought treatment from a well-respected Chinese Professor from Beijing who is also a visiting Professor to one of our local institutions. My mother's medical oncologist was duly informed about the consumption of Chinese herbs while receiving chemotherapy treatment. The Chinese herbs helped to improve her immune system while chemotherapy killed both cancerous and healthy cells. However I made a mistake in not knowing that the prescription should be reviewed regularly as her illness progressed. We were told by the Chinese Professor that my mother could continue with the same prescription and he would contact us whenever he came to Singapore but he failed to do so. Each time, we had to trace his visit in Singapore. My mother only managed to see him on three occasions. Therefore, it would be advisable to seek treatment from local Chinese physicians who can be readily available when the need arises.

You have to exercise your judgment in choosing a competent and experienced Chinese physician/TCM practitioner. My mother always said that the "chemistry" between the doctor and patient must be right for the doctor to save the patient.

In fact, some Chinese herbs are very useful in improving the appetite of cancer patients who often lose their appetite during chemotherapy treatment.

When the cancerous cells spread to my mother's brain, we were told by her oncologist that chemotherapy drugs cannot reach brain cells because of the blood-brain barrier. On the eve of my mother's death, I came to know of certain Chinese herbs/medicine which would be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. If I had known it earlier, my mother's life could have been prolonged again if the Chinese herbs/medicine proves to be effective.

Not many cancer patients can endure the bitterness of Chinese herbs. Very often they give up after a while. Chinese medicine helps to improve the patient's quality of life.

Please click here to read my letter to ST Forum on the opening of Bao Zhong Tang TCM Centre at SGH.

Updated on 23 October 2007

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