025: Naturopathic Oncology. Myth, Mystery, or Medical Science?

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

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Have you explored naturopathic medicine or an integrative approach to your cancer care? Dr. Aminah Keats, has her doctorate in naturopathic medicine and she completed a two-year hospital-based residency in integrative oncology at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. After that, she continued to work as a naturopathic oncology clinician and later directed an integrative oncology department and residency program as a Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology.

Specializing in integrative oncology care, Dr. Keats maintains her general practice, using modalities that include clinical nutrition, botanical medicines, IV nutrient therapy, supplementation, detoxification, homeopathy, and lifestyle counseling. Listen in as we myth bust naturopathic oncology.

Dr. Aminah Keats:

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Tammey Grable-Woodford

Hello and welcome to Your Killer Life, a podcast where we talk about the really real realities of a killer diagnosis like breast cancer with a focus on health, hope, and happiness as we build an intentional killer life. I'm your host, Tammey Grable-Woodford. And thank you so much for listening in. I have a question for you. Have you explored naturopathic medicine or an integrative approach to your cancer care? Well, today's topic and guest is an exciting one for me.

I personally did go down this path and did have an integrative approach. And in talking with other breasties, I'm always a little amazed that there are still some folks out there that don't know about integrative approaches and naturopathic medicine or even what a naturopathic oncologist is. So my guest today, Dr. Aminah Keats, has her doctorate in naturopathic medicine and she completed a two-year hospital-based residency in integrative oncology at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. After that, she continued to work as a naturopathic oncology clinician and later directed an integrative oncology department and residency program as a fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology.

Dr. Aminah specializes in integrative oncology care and maintains her general practice, her general medicine practice, using modalities that include clinical nutrition, botanical medicines, IV nutrient therapy, supplementation, detoxification, homeopathy, and lifestyle counseling. Dr. Aminah, I am so excited to have you as my guest today and so excited for this conversation. I know this is going to be one of the more popular episodes.

I look forward to doing some myth-busting today. And before we get into that and all the questions, though, you've practiced naturopathic medicine for 15 years and clearly, you have a passion for supporting patients in their path to healing and wellness. How did you discover naturopathic medicine?

Photo of Dr. Aminah Keats in her office

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yes, so how did I discover naturopathic medicine? So I stumbled across naturopathic medicine when I was a senior in college, I was reading a newspaper and I saw an ad posted by a local naturopathic doctor who was offering a class on nutrition and herbs, which was something that I had always been interested in. My mom kind of laid that foundation for me, and as soon as I took this course immediately, I just connected with it and I knew that that was something that I had to pursue.

So I did the research, found schools applied and here I am X number of years later. So that that that's my story.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

Oh, my gosh, I love it. So now there are all kinds of, just like with any medical practice, there are different areas of specialty and you chose although we mentioned you do still have your general practice, but you also chose to focus on oncology. What sort of ignited that passion for you?

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yeah, so that was kind of a surprise for me in terms of landing in that place. But the first connection that I have is that my aunt was actually diagnosed with breast cancer when, um, before I actually learned about naturopathic medicine. And, you know, at that time I didn't understand it, but I certainly did see her path. And it was difficult for all of us. Obviously, she was very dear to our family and she passed away from it.

And it definitely stayed with me after that. And then when I ended up naturopathic medical school, one of my advisors recommended that I research or at least look into a naturopathic or integrative oncology residency program. And so those two things kind of merged together and I pursued it. And since then, it's just something that I just really connected so deeply with. And so here I am.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I love it. Well, I say we start with the first myth and talk a little bit about what the heck, a naturopathic, naturopathic, you're going to correct me on that doctor or physician, what that means and what that role is, because I think there are so many just misconceptions about the type of care and the level of care that is provided and how it is that you do work with patients. So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. Aminah Keats

Sure. So a license, I want to make that distinction, a licensed naturopathic doctor is a practitioner who practices natural medicine. Now, in terms of our training, the first two years of our training is similar to conventional training where we learn about all the basic sciences and then we go into the clinical sciences after that point. And then we study more of the natural modalities to promote health and to promote healing. So when it comes to naturopathic care, it's all-around treating the cause.

That's a heavy philosophy and also a lot around prevention. And so when you're seeing a naturopathic doctor, of course, there's a diagnostic piece in terms of physical examination and laboratory evaluation and imaging studies and all these important things that we're accustomed to kind of in that conventional world, but we apply our natural philosophies in terms of stimulating the body to heal, using things like nutrition, using things like herbal medicine, physical activity, acupuncture, just a whole host of natural modalities to promote health and to promote healing.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I think that oftentimes there's this misconception that the world of naturopathic medicine is not in alignment with science, and I think that is also a huge myth.

And I was very fortunate that the integrative oncology clinic that I went to, my medical oncologist, worked very closely with a FABNO and so I had the benefit of both. And there was this understanding of kind of the roles that each person had. Can you talk to us a little bit about the science element of it? That, yes, this is also based in science, and you are licensed and it's, you know, not just some woo woo stuff.

Dr. Aminah Keats

Exactly. Exactly. So, yeah. So definitely evidence-based medicine is key when it comes to natural medicine. We're not basing recommendations on testimonials, for example. So following the research very closely. So, you know, in terms of how I practice as I'm working with patients, whether I'm working with a patient that's diagnosed with breast cancer or a patient that's diagnosed with uterine fibroids, you know, following the research very closely to determine what's going to be most effective and what's going to be safe is so following the research studies is definitely very important and to practice as well.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I love it. Thank you for that and I know that that is one of the things I really appreciated. And again, being in that environment where I had a medical oncologist who was encouraging me to have conversations with the FABNO. OK, so I've tossed that word out a couple of times. What the heck is a FABNO?

Dr. Aminah Keats

So, a FABNO is a fellow of the American border naturopathic oncology, and it's basically if you think about naturopathic medicine, is kind of this wide or this broad umbrella.

Naturopathic oncology is a specialty within that umbrella. And there's probably a couple hundred of us throughout the country who are board-certified and naturopathic oncology. And so when you are a FABNO, that means that you have qualified to sit for an important naturopathic oncology examination, which means that you have seen a certain number of patients with cancer, meaning that you have a robust kind of experience with dealing with different cancer types. You sit for the exam, you become certified and then after that point, there are things that you have to do to maintain that certification of and of course there's a renewal of that certification as well.

But long story short, FABNOs are naturopathic doctors who specialize in integrative oncology care.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

Awesome. And when we say integrative oncology care and if I can say it, when we say integrative oncology care, we should probably define that to what does that mean when we talk about an integrative clinic or integrative care?

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yes. So there are different people will have different kind of different definitions when it comes to integrative oncology or integrative medicine. But I think that we can all agree that it's all-around using all the tools that we have available to promote health and to promote healing. So that means conventional care. So, for example, most of the patients that I work with are receiving the standard of care, whether that's chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted treatment, surgical procedures.

So you have that case. But then you also have natural medicine and natural medicine can safely be used with conventional treatment. So that can mean nutrition. That means supplementation. That can mean acupuncture. That can mean meditation. So just pooling all of those things together so that patients have a complete comprehensive plan of care, that that that's what integrative medicine is all about. So it's not one or the other. It's it's everything.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

And that also includes nutrition.

Dr. Aminah Keats

Absolutely. Nutrition is the foundation is always an opportunity to use food as medicine.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I love it. I think one of the other myths that I do want to tackle, especially as somebody who had the benefit and the opportunity of working with FABNO and also with medical oncology team is that I can just take any supplement. And I'm so fortunate that my plastic surgeon, she has this wonderful sheet every time I went in for surgery of the long list of supplements I needed to stop prior to surgery and also why I needed to stop them.

But I will have people ask me a lot. Well, what did you do your six years out?

What did you do? And I always say to them, it's absolutely, it, we're all different are cancers are different. Our bodies are different. Our treatments are different. It's so important to find a person to have that conversation. And so I think the myth that I kind of want to tackle here a little bit is that just because it is natural doesn't mean that it's OK. And you can have complications with some of the other, especially conventional treatments. So it is important to see an expert and have that conversation. And that is probably the critical part of the integrative element of that care.

Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, it's all-around individualized care. So just because, you know, I may recommend a B complex or Tumeric to one patient doesn't mean that I'm going to recommend that same thing to another patient with the same diagnosis. So you definitely have that is there? We're taking into account the patient that is sitting before us. So not only the diagnosis and treatment but what about co-morbidities? What about lab work? So pulling all this information together.

Right. Individualized care is key. The other thing is, yes, it is true that not everything natural is going to be safe to take, just like, you know, with medications. We have to make sure that they are not going to be any side effects. We have to make sure that they are not going to be any drug and herb interactions. And you know, that piece is really key, especially when you're working with patients who are undergoing conventional treatment. You want to recommend things that are going to complement that care versus interfere with that care.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

Absolutely, thank you for that and you know, peanut butter is not safe for everybody is sort of my comment on that, and that's without all of the other complications of the other treatments and your body just going through everything it goes through physically and emotionally and mentally with a cancer diagnosis.

So how do you work with patients? I know you talked about individualized care, but do you tend to work with them before, during, after? And how do you work as a member of the conventional care team, especially if you're not in the same clinic?

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yeah, so all of the above, you know, so when it comes to you can see I'm able to work with patients who have a new diagnosis that want to get started on a plan right away. I work with patients who are, they're just starting treatment.

I've worked with patients who may it may have been diagnosed five years ago. Now they're just learning about natural medicine. I work with patients who are in remission that want to do everything they can to prevent recurrent disease. So there's always an opportunity to plug natural medicine or naturopathic medicine to incorporate it into a plan so that there's that piece there. And I'm sorry I got so caught up in that I forgot that the other piece of the question.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

Now, I threw a bunch out at once and I didn't even mean to do that.

Dr. Aminah Keats

I get so excited about that part.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I'm just so excited about the conversation. I'm not even going to lie. I mean, one of the things that.

Dr. Aminah Keats

Oh, I know what it was.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

You've got it now.

Dr. Aminah Keats

I just remembered, yeah, at that time in terms of working with the team, even if you're not in the same building. Yes. So so that you know, so that definitely takes a little more effort. I, I come from my career started in a hospital-based setting where everyone was in the same space. So now it's just a point of connecting with a medical oncologist. I always like to do that as I'm working with patients so that everyone is on the same page.

And of course, that makes you know, the patient definitely feels more comfortable when that relationship is there as well. But making sure that the providers are communicating as much as possible. I'm doing this. This is a rationale for that sharing research, studies, and other things in terms of supporting our recommendations for patients, but definitely leaving that that pathway for communication open.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I love it. That is so huge and so important. And I think there's so much value in being able to have the research studies shared and have a provider-to-provider conversation. I know even in my own experience, you know, providers, including you, all providers are busy. And when you're trying to communicate the information as the patient it may or may not always come across as succinctly or framed in a way that is going to be most helpful for moving that dialog forward.

So I think that that's really important to have your entire care team talking. That's that's huge.

Dr. Aminah Keats


Tammey Grable-Woodford

One of the things I loved about working with a naturopathic physician or oncologist is that I felt like in the whirlwind and absolute chaos of a cancer diagnosis, there were so many things that were being recommended or didn't feel optional.

Right. And so there was this real sense of helplessness. And with naturopathic medicine, it was the one area where I felt like I could be a participant in, an active participant in my care and in problem-solving the situation. And nutrition being a big part of that for me. And so when you're sitting down with a patient and talking about nutrition, what are kind of the things that you're evaluating? And are you putting together kind of loose recommendations?

Are you putting together diet plans or is it more of a yes, avoid these if you can, and eat more of this if you can. Kind of how do you approach that nutritional aspect?

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yes. So I like to say that I meet patients where they are, you know, because, you know, someone is not ready to give up five things. It's not realistic to make that recommendation and you don't want to create a stressful situation. So I, I am definitely a believer in taking one step at a time and having that conversation. Whenever I'm making recommendations, I always ask the patient, what do you think about this? Is this doable?

Can you add matcha green tea to your smoothie or, you know, these kinds of things? And just being creative, the way that I talk about food also is I recommend food as I mentioned, kind of like medicinally. So, for example, I don't give dietary plans, but I will say something like the cruciferous family, right, we know that the cruciferous family is like the most researched vegetable family when it comes to cancer and so forth.

So I may say two serve as a day is my recommendation or I may make a recommendation for Tumeric, get it into your diet two teaspoons a day. So that's kind of my thing. I'm very passionate about the idea of using food as medicine because there are so many things to choose from and so many things that can be beneficial for breast cancer treatment and even breast cancer prevention.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I love that, and it's also such an opportunity to have, dare I say, even some fun, introducing new flavors and new experiences and all of those things when it comes to food and diet.

And you're right. And, you know, diet for me, I was one of those. And I and I'm not the only one speaking with other survivors that, like, there's just this big button that gets pushed and all of the sudden you're like, should I be alkaline? Is that the diet? Am I supposed to? And it's crazy because what's out there is so extreme. Nope. You should absolutely be alkaline. Nope. Just eat pineapple for two weeks or two months or whatever it is.

Don't do that people. This is not a recommendation. I'm, I'm kind of just pointing out the different things I was told, you know, helpful things that people tossed my way, you know, to alkaline to keto and everything in between. And so only eat bacon, only eat vegetables.

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yeah. It can be pretty overwhelming, you know, it can be very overwhelming.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

It really, really can. And so I love that taking that approach like even honestly, you know, sugar for me was something that I personally decided to remove from my diet. And that being said, there's only one thing I want postop and I will eat yogurt-covered pretzels for two days postoperatively.

Dr. Aminah Keats

So those are Hutto's.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

So but your point of not and actually I heard the same thing from my FABNO. Stress is bad, stress so bad.

Dr. Aminah Keats

And it's not it doesn't make any sense. Yeah.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

So can we talk therapy as well? Yeah.

Can we talk about that for a minute? Can we talk about stress for a minute and sort of how that does impact the body or of some of the things that you do point out when you're talking with new patients?

Because I will tell you, it's the most ridiculous thing when your care team says to you you have cancer and a lot of it. And by the way, you need to not be stressed out and then you start getting the bills and it's like, oh, OK.

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yeah, yeah, right, right. Yeah. Easier said than done for sure. Yeah. You know, that that's definitely something that I address with every patient, whether it's general medicine or whether it's a cancer diagnosis, because stress may not, well, stress does contribute to health and balances. Right. So when stress levels are elevated, it can lead to hormonal dysregulation, it can impact immune function and it can impact weight. I mean, all these kind of metabolic kind of changes that it can cause that are no good for any kind of condition.

So, you know, I like to be realistic when it comes to stress management techniques and also, again, meeting patients where they are. So one person may say, yes, I'd be open to trying meditation. What kind of resources do you have? Someone else may enjoy taking a walk instead of reading a book or watching a comedy. But really that in general, what I like to encourage patients to do is to dedicate consistently that carved out time to do something that you enjoy doing.

So I was speaking with a patient maybe like two or three weeks ago, and I'm like, well, what do you like to do? And she said, Well, you know, I used to do X, Y and Z. I haven't done it, you know, in months. Well, bring that back. Because when you do, even if you spend ten or twenty minutes doing that thing, whatever that is, you know, it makes us feel happy, brings us joy, and it definitely helps to reduce stress levels.

So even if it is just carving out that small amount of time, you know, to do whatever that thing is, that that is a prescription in itself.

Tammey Grable-Woodford

I love that and so important, the science behind walking and yeah, and stress is not just in a cancer-related focus. The science around that for longevity and health is huge.

Yeah. So this takes me as someone who I have actually seen naturopathic physicians since I was in my 20s. Obviously, I didn't start I didn't have a need for naturopathic oncologists until I was in my 40s.

But I have always had elevated cortisol levels and I had no idea until I started to see this provider what just sort of havoc that would wreak upon my entire system and how complicated hormones are.

And then and so that was sort of the easy thing of, you know, I say easy. It wasn't. But it was an awareness thing. I didn't know that. I had basically a high level of PTSD that was creating this and we addressed it.

And then later, you know, 20 some years later in my 40s, being diagnosed with an estrogen, progesterone, positive breast cancer and hearing sort of inconsistencies, sometimes with recommendations on what I should or shouldn't be doing.

And more so kind of after being released from cancer care and no longer seeing oncologists and those folks talking with primary care providers. And it seems like hormones really are sort of a subspecialty when it comes to conventional care.

And also something that when you say you've had an estrogen, progesterone, positive cancer to a primary care provider, they're pretty much like tapping out they're, like, you know what, you need to see an oncologist or a specialist and maybe not for everybody.

But that has been my experience.

But you actually do work with hormones and take a deeper look. And this was something you and I had had a side conversation about because I'm wanting to learn more because it is more, as you were explaining to me, more than a blood test. And it's more complicated than just testing one thing. And so I really wanted to invite you to spend some time talking about hormones and also not just the testing of it, but, you know, whether or not nutrition can play a role in also helping us with hormone balance, especially as I get close to menopause here. So.

Dr. Aminah Keats

Yeah. So when it comes to hormones and let's say ER/PR positive breast cancer, I mean, we know that estrogen and progesterone can potentially stimulate breast cancer cell growth. So that is important to monitor. But there are other factors as well. Those aren't the only culprits. Right. So but it's something that that's important to pay attention to. So when it comes to testing, there are certainly blood tests that you can do to evaluate and certainly urine tests that you can do to evaluate, now a urine test gives us a different perspective compared to blood. The urine will tell us how much you know, how well the hormones are being metabolized and eliminated, and from there you kind of make recommendations based on that information. Now, when it comes to natural medicine and hormones, there are a class of nutrients, herbs, certain antioxidants that do act as phytoestrogens. Right. So that would be things like soy, for example, is a phytoestrogen, the lignin, and flax or phytoestrogens red clover is a phytoestrogen.

So and now the phytoestrogens don't act as our kind of regular endogenous estrogens do. And I think that when you hear phytoestrogens, they get really nervous. Like, for example, soy has a horrible reputation because it for this reason. But the thing with the plant base kind of phytoestrogens is that for the most part, what they do is they can bind to hormonal or estrogen receptor sites, which will block those endogenous hormones from stimulating those sites. But they're not strong enough to actually stimulate a prol