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Integrative Therapies Can Complement Conventional Cancer Treatments

Patients, physicians and researchers are learning that integrative therapies have a place in cancer care.

BY LAURA BEIL
PUBLISHED SUNDAY, JUNE 15, 2014
This kind of East-meets-West approach to cancer treatment could eventually become the norm. As more research supports the use of certain complementary methods, medical centers across the country are integrating them into everyday practice in both treatment and survivorship, giving rise to one of the newest frontiers in patient care: integrative oncology.

“There’s been a sea change in the way oncology is practiced in major centers,” says Barrie Cassileth, chief of integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, author of the new book Survivorship, and a member of CURE’s advisory board. “The emphasis now in oncology is not only the best possible path to cure, but how can we control the symptoms that result from cancer treatment.”

Some doctors believe that oncology has often suffered from a loss of perspective—an almost singular focus on killing the cancer, while losing sight of patients themselves. Integrative oncology is one means of restoring balance, enabling conventional treatments to remain relentless on the malignancy but as gentle as possible on the patient. Often, that involves acupuncture, massage, yoga and even some lesserknown practices, such as music therapy and the feather touch of reiki.

These practices have long been popular and patients often use them on the side without telling their doctors. Still, experts such as Cassileth say there’s been a philosophical shift: Today doctors not only give nodding acceptance to complementary care but outright encouragement.

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This new approach often surprises patients. When Joan Pouch was undergoing chemotherapy at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia in mid2011, a volunteer asked if she wanted a reiki session. “I said, ‘What is it?’ ” Pouch recalls. Until then, she hadn’t known that treatment for her stage 3 breast tumor would involve anything other than the surgerychemoradiation triple play she anticipated. That day, the volunteer gently placed her hands on Pouch’s arms and head in a practice that promotes balance and stress reduction through touch. Reiki comes from Japanese terms that translate as “universal life force.” While the scientific basis for many of these practices remains unclear, the apparent benefits are starting to attract attention among conventional researchers.

When a routine mammogram revealed Marie Jackson’s breast cancer in February 2013, she set two immediate goals. First, she wanted to spend as much time as she could behind the counter at The Flaky Tart, the Parisian bakery she owns in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Second, she wanted to use whatever medical science she could to rid herself of the grape-size, aggressive tumor. But when the side effects of treatment started affecting every aspect of her life, she realized she needed to regain control.

Felt like I had food poisoning, a really bad hangover and the flu at the same time,” she says. “I was flat on my back.” Nauseated, worn out and more bedridden than a 47-yearold should be, she was determined to do something about it.

The emphasis now in oncology is not only the best possible path to cure, but how can we control the symptoms that result from cancer treatment?

“It was amazing,” Pouch says. After 15 minutes, she felt her anxiety begin to lift. In its place, she felt an enhanced sense of balance she had not known since receiving her diagnosis.

Not that integrative medicine is always unfamiliar. One of its mainstays is an emphasis on diet and physical activity. Studies have found that patients who exercise during and after treatment and maintain a healthy body weight tend to recover faster, feel stronger and even live longer than their sedentary peers.

“There’s a huge amount of research on the benefits of a healthy diet, physical activity and healthy body weight,” says Heather Greenlee of Columbia University in New York, president of the Society for Integrative Oncology. “Those are some of the best things patients can do to take care of themselves. But a lot of people want quick fixes. Dietary and behavioral change takes time.”

The emphasis on diet and physical activity underscores an important distinction between integrative oncology and alternative medicine. Alternative medicine choices lack scientific validity and are used in place of conventional treatment, says Lorenzo Cohen, director of the integrative medicine program at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and a member of CURE’s advisory board. “Integrative medicine is more of a philosophy of how we treat patients,” he says. It incorporates treatments that have held up under scientific challenges, with a focus largely on improving quality of life.

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