The death of a young Chinese actress, who at first rejected modern medical techniques in favor of traditional medicine to cure her cancer, has sparked a national debate about the effectiveness of both.
Xu Ting, 26, was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune cells, two months prior to her death and refused to get chemotherapy against her family’s objections, citing it was too devastating and costly.
“I know that chemotherapy is extremely painful, and is a process that can even speed up my death,” she said on China's micro-blogging site Weibo, adding, “I don't want to let chemotherapy torment me to the point where I look unrecognizable, and have lost all my money, and myself.”
The actress, who was one of seven children, said she worked hard to pay for her brother’s tuition, her parents’ debts and a house but never felt comfortable with splurging money on herself. Instead, she turned to traditional Chinese treatments like acupuncture, cupping and gua sha.
As Xu revealed her journey online, many of her 300,000 fan base expressed their concerns over her rejecting Western medicine.
One user commented: “Listen to me, Chinese medicine is absolutely useless to cure cancer. If you don’t want to listen to me at least listen to a doctor.”
“Please abandon the traditional treatments, it’s a fantasy. You need to rely on modern medicine to save yourself,” said another.
As Xu worsened instead of getting better, she belatedly resorted to chemotherapy when her immune system had all but collapsed, but succumbed to her disease on Sept. 7.
Since her death, a debate has risen in China over whether she would have lived if she had started chemotherapy immediately after the diagnosis and whether the Chinese medical practices ultimately led to her death.
Some people have argued that traditional Chinese medicine should not be blamed for the actress’ death.
“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 pass away after receiving chemotherapy. Will these same people also say that Western medicine is a sham?”
“Chinese medicine is thousands of years old. Not everything Western doctors say is true,” another person said.
However, many people say it would have been wise to have taken both types of treatment to complement each other: chemotherapy would have targeted her cancer while traditional practices would help relieve after effects like pain, nausea and edema.
Dr. Feng Li, head of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Department at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, believes that the problem lies with the public’s ignorance of TCM. He quoted, “solely relying on acupuncture and fire cupping is not enough” in treating malignant chronic diseases like tumors.
“Regardless of whether it’s Western medicine or TCM, malignant tumors are not something that can simply be treated using a single method. They require a synthesized approach, combining both eastern and western methodology,” Dr. Feng Li wrote.
Even in the West, scientists are starting to research the benefits of traditional medicine in cancer. Cancer Research UK stated it is very difficult to test the affects of traditional treatment because they are tailored differently to each patient, making it complicated to compare results.
"Some studies suggest that acupuncture may be useful for a number of different conditions, but we need more research," the research center said. "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."
Despite the fact that fans are divided over the debate, they have all collectively expressed sorrow at Xu’s passing.
“I’m sad that this is how I came to know you,” one user wrote. “I hope there’s no pain in heaven, and wish you well.”
Banner credit: Weibo, Xu Ting