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BEYOND THE CONVENTIONAL


By Cynthia Cantrell, Boston Globe Correspondent, 2/25/2001

Naturopathic physician James Belanger can't remember a time when he didn't want to be a doctor. While his friends in high school were playing sports, he was shadowing physicians at Lowell General Hospital. In college, he worked as an emergency medical technician while studying zoology and medical technology.

''At that time, I thought the only way to practice medicine was with pharmaceutical drugs,'' Belanger said. ''I didn't know any other way.''

Belanger's own experience with cancer changed that. Diagnosed with the disease in 1990, he took a friend's advice: consult an Oriental medicine practitioner in Boston.

''He took my pulse, looked at my tongue, and prescribed herbs that helped me. I was fascinated,'' said Belanger, who credits a combination of surgery, herbs, and an overall improved diet with sending his cancer into remission a decade ago. ''I had to learn more.''

Now it is Belanger who is teaching others to live longer, healthier lives at Lexington Natural Health Center, a private practice he shares with fellow naturopathic physician Karen Braga. Belanger, who specializes in oncology, and Braga, who focuses on women's health and pediatrics, treat a wide range of conditions including heart disease, cancer, infertility, diabetes, depression, allergies, asthma, insomnia, Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, and recurring infections.

The naturopathic philosophy includes developing a comprehensive treatment plan for patients who may also be under the care of conventional medical professionals. Naturopathic treatments include nutritional supplements, herbs, homeopathy, and diet and lifestyle changes.

According to Belanger and Braga, both Lexington residents, naturopathic physicians work to eliminate the cause of an illness by treating the whole person, rather than suppressing the symptoms of a disease. Belanger added, ''Regardless of whatever prognosis a patient is facing, we don't give up. We do everything possible to help, as long as it's safe. It's worth it. After all, we've seen remarkable results.''

Winchester resident Lee O'Keefe, 69, counts herself as an example. One evening three years ago, she woke up in searing pain, barely able to struggle to a sitting position. She was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease polymyalgia rheumatica, and her medical physician prescribed drugs that helped her regain movement, though debilitating fatigue lingered.

''I couldn't lift a spoon to my mouth,'' she recalled. ''I felt like every bone in my body was broken.''

After a friend urged her to contact Belanger after attending one of his lectures, O'Keefe made an appointment last July. Suspecting a food allergy, Belanger recommended vitamins and dietary changes that excluded corn, potatoes, wheat, and dairy products.

The new diet ''wasn't pleasant, but I made the commitment to myself, just like I made commitments to my husband and children,'' O'Keefe said. ''After a few weeks, my fatigue began to lift and it became easier to stick with. Now I can shop a little, play with my grandchildren again. I've got my life back.''

Although the majority of patients at Lexington Natural Health Center live in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, word of the pair's practice reached at least one individual in Florida. In November 1998, then 67-year-old Dolores Lawrence of Kissimmee, Fla., was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her liver. Her grandson recommended a call to Belanger, who requested copies of her lab results. By December 1998, she was on a regimen of chemotherapy, vitamins, and herbs, a combination she credits with her cancer's remission since the fall of 1999.

''Don't let anyone tell you that you're going to die,'' said Lawrence, who went to a portrait studio ''so I'd remember what I looked like with hair'' prior to her chemotherapy. ''Whatever you have to do, whatever it costs, your life is absolutely worth it.''

Though naturopathic physicians in some states can serve as primary care physicians, practitioners in Massachusetts do not hold that status.

Similarly, office visits and supplements prescribed by naturopathic physicians aren't generally covered by health insurance plans in thestate. According to Belanger, office visits cost about the same as thosecharged by conventional physicians. Beyond that, naturopathic treatments can run anywhere from no charge, if just dietary changes are necessary, to $500 per month for some cancer patients.

Lawrence, who has never met Belanger, pays for her telephone consultations and prescribed supplements with the help of her two daughters.

Medford resident Maria D'Orsi, 46, charges her supplements and visits to Braga to a credit card. She's been battling breast cancer with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and naturopathic therapy since last summer, and she credits Braga's treatment plan with keeping her energy and spirits high.

Though she, too, pays for naturopathic treatment out of her own pocket, O'Keefe takes comfort in the reduction of one pharmaceutical drug and elimination of blood pressure and cholesterol medications altogether, a cost savings she attributes to Belanger's treatment program.

Lexington resident Joyce Murphy, 49, said she saves time and money otherwise spent on office visits by calling Belanger with an occasional question.

''It's a big help,'' said Murphy, who was diagnosed eight years ago with rosacea, an acne-like facial condition she says has improved in the four months she's been consulting Belanger. ''My insurance will pay for the prescription drug my dermatologist wants me to take, which requires liver testing every month, but it won't pay for natural vitamins, minerals, and herbs,'' she added. ''It doesn't make sense.''

Because patients pay for their own treatment, according to Belanger, they want to feel and look better right away. They also frequently request corroborating research and inquire about his academic qualifications.

(Belanger and Braga both earned a naturopathic doctorate at Bastyr University in Seattle, and are members of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Belanger also teaches nutrition at the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine in Connecticut.)

''I provide them with as much data as possible so they can make an informed decision,'' Belanger said, ''but I urge them to ask the same of their medical doctors. A lot of people don't realize the side effects some pharmaceutical drugs can carry.''

Naturopathic and conventional physicians alike seem to agree that communication between a patient and all caregivers involved is crucial to effective treatment. Dr. Yank Coble, an endocrinologist in Jacksonville, Fla., who serves on the board of trustees of the American Medical Association, said that's especially true when unregulated supplements are involved.

''If anyone convinces a patient to eat a better diet, exercise moreregularly, stop smoking, or end drug abuse, then they've done thatperson a service,'' said Coble, who also serves as a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Florida. ''When [herbs and supplements] are introduced, it's a stickier situation. It's important for a patient to make sure their physician knows what's going on so nothing interferes with the absorption and metabolism of foods or other medicines.''Though Lawrence and D'Orsi say their oncologists support theirnaturopathic treatments, the physicians could not be reached for comment.

According to Braga, naturopathic physicians are versed in pharmaceutical drugs as well as natural alternatives. ''We know when a drug is necessary to treat a condition, and we'll be the first ones to advise a patient when one is needed,'' she said.

Beford resident Jill Wussler, 38, said that's one reason she feels so comfortable consulting Braga on how to maintain her own good health as well as that of her 4-year-old and 21-month-old daughters.

''I love our pediatrician and I have excellent medical benefits, and many times conventional medicine is absolutely called for,'' Wussler said. ''On the other hand, I learn a lot from Dr. Braga, and I recommend her all the time.''

D'Orsi agreed with Wussler's assessment that naturopathy is a gentle kind of medicine. ''Some people are afraid to do anything beyond what they perceive as the medical boundary, but they shouldn't be,'' D'Orsi said. ''I put my life in the hands of my oncologist, but Dr. Braga will also be with me for the rest of my life.''

Though they have many success stories, there are some individuals
whom Braga and Belanger can't help. Usually, those are the patients whose family members or friends are fighting for their recovery after they've given up.

Even more tragic, according to Belanger, are the patients he meets too late.

''A lot of patients, especially those with cancer, come in after they've been told there's nothing else conventional medicine can do for them. I could help so much more if they'd come to me sooner,'' he said. ''It's frustrating to hear they didn't know there was another option.''

This story ran on page 9 of the Boston Globe's Northwest Weekly on 2/25/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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