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Chinese actress' death sparks national debate over traditional medicine

Chinese actress' death sparks national debate over traditional medicine

The death of a young Chinese actress who initially rejected chemotherapy in favour of traditional Chinese medicine has sparked a national debate.

Xu Ting, 26, was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system, two months before passing away.

Against her family's objections, the actress decided to reject chemotherapy and radiology, saying that she had seen friends suffer from those treatments and was concerned about the cost, both financial and "to herself."

She explained that while traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) might not cure her, it was preferable to the horrors of chemotherapy.

"I know that chemotherapy is extremely painful, and is a process that can even speed up my death,” she said on Twitter-like micro-blogging site Weibo, adding that she didn’t want to "let chemotherapy torment me to the point where there’s no beauty and talent left."

The actress turned to traditional treatments like acupuncture, cupping (the same treatment adopted by members of the US Team at the Rio Olympics including Michel Phelps), and gua sha, a method in which the skin is scraped to produce light bruising.

Xu first revealed her condition on Weibo, where she had almost 300,000 followers, in July. As she documented her journey online, users started voicing their concerns over her decision to reject western medicine.

As the actress' condition got worse, she resorted to chemotherapy, but died on September 7. As her death became public, the effectiveness of traditional medicine was questioned on social media as well as in the media. Critics argued that she might have survived had she turned to chemotherapy when she was first diagnosed.

Some completely rejected that TCM was ineffective. "Some people say that traditional Chinese medicine can’t cure cancer, so therefore traditional Chinese medicine is a sham. This kind of logic is ridiculous," said Hou Jiang of the Beijing Evening News.

"There are many cancer patients who still pass away after receiving chemotherapy. Will these same people also say that western medicine is a sham?" he argued.

Some people, including Xu's sister, accused the actress' doctor of being a "fraud" and delaying her treatment. Some defenders of Chinese traditional medicine agreed that the doctor was a "fraud" and said that, for example, a treatment like cupping is suited for people who have suffered a stroke rather than patients with cancer.

The head of the traditional Chinese medicine department at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing conceded that "solely relying on acupuncture and fire cupping is not enough" in treating a malignant tumour and it's usually a choice made out of fear of painful treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

"Regardless of whether it’s Western medicine or TCM, malignant tumours are not something that can simply be treated using a single method. They require a synthesised approach, combining both eastern and western methodology," Dr Feng Li wrote in an editorial published by the People's Daily.

"For example, while western approaches like radiology, chemotherapy, and surgery are effective in shrinking the tumour, TCM is effective in reducing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, edema, and pain that comes with western treatment."

"No medical professional would say with certainty that TCM or western medicine is superior. They both have their own advantages and shortcomings," Dr Feng argued.

Western scientists are starting to research whether TCM could help treat or prevent cancer. Cancer Research UK argues that it is very difficult to trial the traditional treatments because of how they are tailored to individuals, making it difficult to compare results.

"Some studies suggest that acupuncture may be useful for a number of different conditions, but we need more research," the charity says.

"There is some evidence that some herbs used in Chinese herbal medicine may help to control the symptoms of cancer or side effects of treatment. But most studies have been of poor quality and so we can't be sure how reliable they are. Further research is currently under way."


Last modified on Monday, 19 September 2016 09:17