From Our 2009 Archives
Farrah Fawcett's German Cancer Care
Actress, Ill With Anal Cancer, Had Treatment in Germany That's Not Approved in U.S.
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
May 15, 2009 -- Actress Farrah Fawcett's fight against anal cancer has included treatments in Germany that aren't approved in the U.S., sparking debate about cancer patients' options when they want more than what's approved by the FDA.
Fawcett, 62, was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006.
Fawcett is "doing very well right now," Fawcett's doctor, Lawrence Piro, MD, told NBC's Today show. "She's obviously having a lot of side effects that come with cancer and come with cancer chemotherapy. And she's weak and she's spending a lot of time in bed and resting. But overall, she's in good spirits and she certainly still has her characteristic sense of humor, which is helping her get through all of this," said Piro, who is the president and CEO of The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles.
Apart from her U.S. treatment, Fawcett has traveled to Germany six times seeking cancer treatment, actor Ryan O'Neal -- Fawcett's partner and the father of her son, Redmond -- recently told People.
Treatments in Germany
Ursula Jacob of Germany's Alpenpark Clinic has treated Fawcett. In an interview with Access Hollywood, Jacob says that, in Germany, Fawcett was given "natural supplements and also immune treatments" that were tailored to her specific case.
Those treatments improved Fawcett's quality of life and "the tumor shrank in size and also the mass of the tumor shrank," Jacob said. "For a long time, two-and-a-half years, she was in really good shape."
Jacob recently flew to California to see Fawcett, but says she can't give Fawcett the care she got in Germany while Fawcett is in the U.S., because those treatments aren't FDA approved. The treatments, which Jacob didn't describe in detail, are "normal" in Europe, Jacob says.
Fawcett's friend, Alana Stewart, told the Access Hollywood reporter that Jacob was there "more to be a friend and a support to Farrah than to give treatments. She's under treatment by her American doctors."
Laurence R. Sands, MD, is associate professor of surgery and chief of colorectal surgery at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. He treats many anal cancer patients but isn't one of Fawcett's doctors.
The theory, Sands says, is "if you bolster the immune system and make it vibrant, then you can kill off cancer cells." But Sands says that approach doesn't have solid scientific proof. "It's really based mostly in theory more than in science."
Sands says he tells his patients that such treatments shouldn't be used instead of standard medical treatments -- in the case of anal cancer, that's chemotherapy and radiation, and surgery if chemotherapy and radiation aren't enough.
Sands says he isn't against other treatments being used in addition to standard medical therapy, and he urges patients to talk it over with their mainstream doctors.
Some of his patients have shown him the herbal treatments they've been given to check if there might be a conflict with their standard treatment. Sands says he generally hasn't seen troublesome ingredients but says some ingredients could make bleeding more likely, and he would discourage the use of those ingredients.
Overall, Sands says his patients haven't shown him products "that should be particularly detrimental; I just don't know how helpful it really is."
Suggestions for Patients
Michael Fisch, MD, MPH, directs the general oncology program at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He isn't one of Fawcett's doctors, but he sees many patients with advanced cancer.
Here are Fisch's suggestions for patients with advanced cancer who are disappointed with their treatment options:
Cancer Care Options
Every country sets its own standards for medical care. In the U.S., the FDA is the authority that approves drugs and other medical treatments.
Many cancer patients are also interested in complementary or alternative treatments. Complementary medicine is used with conventional medicine; alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
Complementary and alternative treatments come in many forms, including acupuncture, dietary supplements, herbal products, and special diets.
The NCCAM recommends that anyone considering complementary or alternative medicine should first talk with their doctors and carefully research the therapy and its practitioners. Resources include:
SOURCES: MSNBC.com. WebMD Health News: "Farrah Fawcett Is Fighting Cancer." Laurence Sands, MD, chief of colorectal surgery and associate professor of surgery, University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Michael Fisch, MD, MPH, director, general oncology program, medical director, community clinical oncology program research base, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
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