Dr. James Belanger (pronounced the French way, Bay-lahn-jay) is a naturopathic doctor (ND) practicing in the Boston area. He and his wife, Karen B. Braga, ND, are co-founders of the Lexington Natural Health Center in Lexington, about half an hour west of downtown Boston. I had a very friendly and productive meeting with Dr. Belanger. Dr. Braga meanwhile was out of the office, on maternity leave.
This was one of those occasions in which I felt envious of the local inhabitants for having such an innovative doctor in their neighborhood. Dr. Belanger is one of the modern generation of naturopaths (he and his wife are both 1998 graduates of Bastyr University in Seattle, WA) trained in the use of advanced blood testing as the scientific basis for the selection of natural treatments.
Dr. Belanger hails from nearby Chelmsford, MA, and was educated at the University of Massachusetts. His degree was in laboratory medicine medical technology) and he was valedictorian of his class - no surprise, as he is clearly a very bright individual. He told me that he has always been interested in cancer and at age 16 started working in hospitals in a variety of menial positions. At one time he worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Boston. His long-term goal was always to become a medical doctor, but he was also interested in a wide variety of medical techniques, such as acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine.
At age 20, in 1990, he himself developed testicular cancer. He had four separate surgical operations and was cured without the need for chemotherapy. Although he also saw a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner in Boston, he is forthright in ascribing his survival to skilful surgery. This personal brush with cancer deepened his empathy for other cancer patients, particularly those who had less promising prognoses than he had. (Early-stage testicular caner is usually curable through conventional means.) Perhaps paradoxically, he was left with an intense desire to learn about forms of treatment other than surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
At this time he met his first naturopathic doctor, Ed Ellis, ND, of his hometown, Chelmsford, who was treating cancer using herbs and other natural treatments. (Dr Ellis no longer practices in the Boston area). Dr. Belanger is now part of a select group of naturopathic doctors in the US specializing in cancer. In fact, cancer patients constitute more than half of his practice.
He uses very comprehensive (and relatively expensive) blood serum tests to give crucial information about patients’ underlying state of health, such as the over-expression of various pro-inflammatory cytokines. Dr. Belanger then prescribes certain natural substances (such as derivatives of the herb turmeric and Boswellia) in a highly targeted fashion to bring down these elevated markers. In this way, the patient is restored to a state of improved health. It is axiomatic in naturopathic medicine that cancer cannot thrive or survive in a health body. Thus, the aim is to restore the patient to overall health, thereby restricting the area in which cancer can grow or spread.
Since naturopathy constitutes individualized treatment par excellence, it is a bit difficult to predict what Dr. Belanger may or may not prescribe for any particular patient. However, he told me that if the patient is on chemotherapy or radiation, he would choose natural treatments that have been studied alongside these toxic treatments to increase their effectiveness and make them work better.
Since Dr. Belanger’s undergraduate degree is in laboratory medicine, he uses the laboratory to define the scope of the patient’s immune system (in broad terms) and how that might be influenced to fight cancer. He finds a lot of unproven claims in the marketplace for such agents. He uses the lab, and his access to patients’ blood serum, to test the claims for various agents. He also uses the online medical database, PubMed, to identify potentially useful agents. He also used blood tests for particular cytokines (the presence of which sometimes correlates with a worse prognosis) to get a base line before he prescribes any supplement. He then uses supplements to bring down those cytokines. Patients with visible or metastatic cancers typically have abnormal or climbing test values. These panels are very useful, especially in patients at high risk of disease recurrence. He will then try supplements that have been shown in published papers to lower the particular markers that are associated with high risk of recurrence.
Dr. Belanger proceeds from a comprehensive view of the immune system and its status within the body of the cancer patient. This, he starts from the premise that the dendritic cells (DCs) are the first cells that present tumor antigens to the T cells of the immune system. What can suppress this process? There is research to show that two cytokines that interfere are interleukin-10 (IL-10) and transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta). If cancer patients have high levels of those, then antigen presentation will almost certainly be impaired. But Dr. Belanger has found that the plant enzyme bromelain successfully lower IL-10, and pancreatic enzymes successfully lower TGF-beta. There is a special test for these cytokines carried out for him at a research lab (R&D Research Labs in Minneapolis, MN - http://www.rndsystems.com/). Dr. Belanger has tested four different enzymes on the market and has found that Wobenzym N is the most effective of these.
He prescribes 10 x Wobenzym N, 3 times per day for people with elevated levels of TGF-beta. He also uses these enzymes, along with the spice-derived chemical curcumin, for people who have elevated C reactive protein. He finds that this works very well. He is also interested in the use of select herbal products such as AHCC, PSP extract, Dan Shen (Chinese sage), the herb Chelidonium majus, the tumeric-derived curcumin, etc.
One unfortunate circumstance is that Dr. Belanger - a graduate of one of the best naturopathic medical schools in the US - cannot legally practice any form of medicine in his home state of Massachusetts. (He does have a naturopathic license in Connecticut, however.). There have been many attempts over the past 20 years to get a naturopathic medical law passed in the State of Massachusetts. At the time we spoke, he was once again working towards the passage of such a law, which would put naturopathy “on the map” in the state and give it legal standing.
At this writing, however, only Massachusetts along with Rhode Island in New England has no naturopathic licensing laws. As a result, currently anyone can call him or herself a naturopath in these unregulated states. This leads to some odd situations in which people with unaccredited online (or mail order) degrees are legally on a par with educated and trained practitioners such as Dr. Belanger and his wife, Dr. Braga. The practical upshot of this is that there is no insurance coverage for naturopathic treatment. Some laboratories do not accept orders from naturopaths for tests and panels; others do.
Another problem is that in Massachusetts, because of this lag in legal acceptance, the term “naturopathic” is used indiscriminately as a blanket term to cover almost any non-conventional treatment, including those without any basis in scientific research. Since oncologists may have previously encountered so-called “naturopaths” who have no licensure and little experience, it is often difficult for them to accept the idea of working with a true naturopath. They cannot tell the difference between real and phony naturopaths.
Properly educated naturopaths face stiff opposition from both the Massachusetts Medical Society. But, ironically, the strong opposition may come from other self-described naturopaths, who did not themselves graduate from a naturopathic medical school with a residency requirement. They fear that a strong naturopathic licensing law will eventually put them out of business.
BOTTOM LINE: I was very impressed with Dr. Belanger and would enjoy the opportunity to learn more about his medical philosophy. He is experienced and wise for a relatively young man. I also think his treatment philosophy makes sense. The more we learn about the positive and negative rolls of cytokines and growth factors, the more important they seem to one’s health. As a general proposition, it makes perfect sense to me that if you normalize the biochemistry of the body, you improve the person’s overall health. I think we have to take it on faith right now that this results in clinical improvements in cancer, i.e., in regressions or remissions of tumors. But restoring the overall health of cancer patients is certainly a desirable objective in itself. People who live in the Boston area are lucky to have a talented naturopath in their vicinity.