An Adventure with the Chinese Medicine Man


A couple weeks ago, a friend, whose mother is facing a rare, lethal form of breast cancer, strongly recommended that I go see Dr. G.W., an expert in dispensing herbs to treat cancer and other ailments as part of traditional Chinese medicine practices.  Initially, I was skeptical, in part because my beloved internist is so against herbal supplements — he wrote an entire chapter in a medical textbook about the untold risks associated with taking herbal supplements.  I had also assumed that my oncologist was opposed to traditional Chinese medicine as a form of either alternative or complementary treatment (as most oncologists seem to be), although we’d never discussed the topic specifically.  The fear is of course that, in the absence of clinical studies to show otherwise, the herbs might interfere with chemo treatments and have other negative ramifications resulting in the promotion of cancer growth and other afflictions.

But my friend was insistent and her recommendation was impassioned; so I looked into Dr. G.W..  His credentials were impressive — Ph.D. from Harvard some 35 years ago, professorships at various prestigious institutions, years of cancer research at Sloan Kettering and numerous legitimate-sounding papers and presentations on herbal research.  Plus, the breast cancer community online raves about Dr. G.W.  Breast cancer is his specialty but according to his website, he does have experience in other cancers, including colon cancer.  The final clincher though was that my friend’s mother’s doctors spoke glowingly of him and that my own oncologist, while he doesn’t know Dr. G.W., was comfortable with me taking herbal supplements, so long as he approved in advance the herbs being used.  The fact that my blood is being tested all the time also provides him (and me) comfort; if there were negative effects caused by the herbs, they would show up in my blood.  More irrationally, I’ve been emboldened by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies, a beautiful and brilliant work that chronicles the history of cancer and the work of daring doctors and researchers and their patients who heroically — many said stupidly at the time — risked their professional careers and lives to develop revolutionary drugs to fight off this scourge that has plagued the human race since the beginning of mankind.  If those brave souls could take such risks with potent, untested chemicals, I could roll the dice with traditional Chinese medicine, which after all has been around for thousands of years and is a part of my noble Chinese heritage.

So I sent Dr. G.W. an email and then he called me.  He told me to meet him on the corner of 47th and Broadway in Astoria, Queens, in front of the Rite Aid.  Odd, but okay.  For those not from New York, Queens is a borough that no one ventures into unless one lives there.  Think of Vince, Eric, Drama and Turtle of Entourage fame, who escaped the obscurity of Queens for the glamor and glitz of Los Angeles.  Think of Carrie, Samantha and Charlotte of Sex and the City who cringed in horror at the idea of visiting Miranda in Brooklyn (gasp!); Brooklyn was bad enough for those sophisticated Manhattanites; forget about Queens; Carrie Bradshaw’s treasured Manolo Blahniks shoes would have never touched a Queens sidewalk.  While Brooklyn offers the charm of elegant 19th century brownstones and gorgeous Prospect Park (the outer boroughs’ response to Manhattan’s Central Park), Queens has little to offer in terms of aesthetics, with its streets characterized by squat and square red brick buildings.  I’ve only been to Queens a few times because my sister lives in Astoria and I’ve tasted on even fewer occasions the amazing ethnic food that only Queens offers (but admittedly not quite good enough to lure Manhattan- and Brooklyn-centric snobs).

The point is that making my way into Queens to meet the Chinese medicine man on some strange street corner was an adventure.  My parents (who were visiting from LA) insisted on going with me and they dragged my sister along too.  The four of us stood on the corner of 47th and Broadway in front of the one-story building that houses a Rite Aid — my brother was the only one missing out on all the fun.  I called Dr. G.W.  and told him I had arrived at our designated meeting spot; he said he would be there in five minutes.  My parents kept asking me, “Aren’t we going to his office?  Why are we standing here?”  I couldn’t answer their questions, as I was starting to wonder myself whether this guy was legit.  I stood there waiting with my little entourage and giggled with my sister over the ludicrousness of the situation — here I am standing on a street corner with cancer cells floating around my body waiting for an alleged doctor to give me mysterious herbs.  As you can tell from the above photo, my parents didn’t seem to find the situation very amusing.  I told them to lighten up.

As I waited, I remembered some of the bizarre adventures I had in China.  The Chinese (and most other parts of the world) have an unorthodox and frequently sketchy way of doing things, especially when viewed from a Westerner’s perspective where order and the rule of law are dominant forces.  On multiple occasions, I nodded to a man muttering “CD? DVD?” on the streets near the famed Silk Alley in Beijing, where fake and non-fake American and European branded clothes, shoes and accessories could be had for serious bargains.  I’d then follow the man to a abandoned building and we’d exchange very little money for a lot of pirated CDs and DVDs.  Back in the mid 1990s, it seemed like any transaction that promised little money for great reward involved some man or woman leading you from a public place to an abandoned back office or stairwell where hotel rooms could be booked, tickets purchased and currencies exchanged; it always reeked of illicitness.  And I loved it all!  The risk taking, the unknown and the strangeness got my heart pumping and my blood flowing with excitement, amusement and a real joy for life in those moments.

I suppose waiting for Dr. G.W. wasn’t all that different.  I was curious, entertained and excited, albeit somewhat wary.  When my father saw a lone diminutive man in a floral short carrying a black satchel ambling down 47th Street, he said in a tone dripping with sarcasm, “That must be him.  Really looks like a Harvard-trained doctor.”  Indeed, it was Dr. G.W. “Who are all these people?” Dr. G.W. asked me suspiciously after we confirmed one another’s identity.  He accepted without comment my response and allowed my entourage to trail behind us as we walked.

We walked back down Broadway to a little cafe.  I ordered sandwiches for myself and my parents, thereby giving us the right to use the cafe as an office.  We climbed up to the second floor which was empty of people.  I sat with Dr. G.W. at one table and my parents and sister sat one table over, openly eavesdropping on mine and Dr. G.W.’s conversation, which lasted well over an hour.

Despite the oddity of it all, I like Dr. G.W.  I do think he’s legit.  He said that he could have met me in his office at a prominent hospital in Manhattan, but that would have required my information to be logged into a computer system and would have severely limited him in the advice he could give me.  According to Dr. G.W., the medical establishment distrusts traditional Chinese medicine.  While there are those who support it (like those at his hospital), that support is kept low key for fear of liability.  Sadly, we live in a country that is highly litigious and therefore doctors and their hospitals spend much time guarding against liability, frequently at the expense of patients.  Because there are thousands of herbs and infinite herb combinations and little money is invested in testing the use of those herbs in treating cancer and other diseases, doctors and hospitals are paralyzed when it comes to traditional Chinese medicine.  Dr. G.W. pointed to the all powerful and richly endowed Sloan Kettering as the worst of all in their conservative views.  It made me very glad that I had chosen NYU for treatment.

Dr. G.W., after reviewing my most recent blood test results, feeling my pulse, looking at my tongue and just generally speaking to me, feels that the staging of my cancer as a stage IV diagnosis is a mere “technicality” and that I am strong and exhibiting minimal side effects from the chemo.  He certainly had a hopeful and very reassuring manner about him, which I really appreciated and needed desperately that day.  The objective while I am in treatment is to minimize the chemo side effects, detox my body and boost my immune system (i.e., maintaining my blood and platelet counts at normal levels to obviate the need for painful shots).  Once I’m out of treatment (if we get there), the focus will shift from minimizing side effects to preventing recurrence.

I’d half expected him to pull out a bunch of herbs from his black satchel like Mary Poppins would pull out a lamp from her purse, but alas, that did not happen.  He gave me instructions to go to a herbal pharmacy in Chinatown (the only one he trusts as they’ve been around for 40 years and are known for sourcing high quality, and screening all, herbs).  When I was little, my mother would bring home mysterious brown herbs wrapped in pink butcher paper, dump them in a pot and cook them for hours.  She’d force down the bitter black tea resulting from that brew.  Fortunately, it’s 30 years later and now herbal pharmacies have machines that brew teas and package them into vacuum packed pouches ready to be drunk.  I am grateful to not have to brew teas for hours as my mother once did, because if I did, I might not embark on this little adventure with traditional Chinese medicine.

The day after our meeting, Dr. G.W. sent me the below list of herbs that would make up my tea.

Cinnamon twig
Mulberry twig
Perilla leaf
Ophiopogon tuber
Eucommia bark
Lycium fruit
Chi ko
Magnolia bark
Lo hon fruit
Tangerine peel

I forwarded the list to my oncologist.  He approved.  I told Dr. G.W. to proceed with placing the order with the herbal pharmacy.

I went to pick up the tea this afternoon.  Amidst the open air markets of fruits and vegetables and smelly fish and the restaurants with the hanging roasted ducks and chickens displayed in their windows, sits the uncrowded herbal pharmacy.  The store looks as reputable and clean as a store in New York’s Chinatown can be, with glass display cases under florescent lights, filled with creams, ointments and oils, and shelves lined with hundreds of giant glass jars containing things like black jujubes, honeyed dates, lo han guo and all other manner of fruit, tree bark, leaves, fungi, roots and derivative thereof there could possibly be in the world.  One of the teenagers working behind the counter went into the back room to retrieve my freshly brewed teas, all neatly packed in 4-ounce clear plastic pouches.  The tea was so newly made that it was almost too hot to handle.  I authorized a $150 charge on my credit card for a 16-day supply and walked out the door — credit card acceptance in Chinatown is also a good sign of legitimacy.  Dr. G.W. will reassess the herbal formula at the end of that period to determine if there are any necessary adjustments.  My job is to drink the stuff twice a day and to keep him informed via email as to how my body is reacting to the concoction.

So that’s my adventure into the world of traditional Chinese medicine thus far.  I have to go drink my first pouch of tea now and will let you all know how it goes.  Hopefully, it will be sweet like Dr. G.W. promised and not foul like the teas my mother used to drink.  Bottoms up!


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Victor
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 23:47:46

    Sounds like a great adventure! How did it taste?


  2. Bill Ide
    Oct 17, 2013 @ 15:37:10

    Have been trying to figure out what is real other than the traditional Western medicine approach. It appears that the more progressive Western trained doctors are starting to see value in the Eastern ways. Glad you’re going for it with oversight from the Western guys! All the best Bill


  3. Shan
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 16:37:15

    I’m so glad you’re giving TCM a shot. So long as the herbs are reputable quality and your “western” doctor is monitoring your blood, I don’t see any harm and I see plenty of upside.


  4. Maria kucharek
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 11:49:46

    Julie, that sound very interesting. My oncologist at Sloan is so against about almost everything. But I really believe that we need to bust our immune system.


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