Q&A with VIctoria Maizes, MD, on the role integrative medicine can play in healing from cancer.
Victoria Maizes, MD, is executive director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and an associate professor of medicine, family, and community medicine and public health. Under her leadership, the university’s integrative medicine program has grown from a residential fellowship that trained four non-oncologist physicians each year to five fellowship programs training more than 80 physicians per year (300 total) in areas including integrative rheumatology and integrative family medicine. She recently spoke with freelance writer Scott Williams about the role integrative medicine can play in healing from cancer.
How does a practitioner of integrative medicine assess a cancer survivor?
Often people already have had a diagnostic workup. Having that information is critical, but we also want to know: ‘How is this person holding up?’ My experience in having seen many women with breast cancer is that it’s very different when a 35-year-old gets the diagnosis from when a 75-year-old gets it. For the younger women, it often evokes a crisis of spirit. Women ask: ‘‘Why did this happen to me? Why now?” And they want to know what they can do to play a role in their own healing, whether it’s a special diet, or supplements, or acupuncture or other therapies that will help.
How might integrative medicine work in conjunction with the care a survivor receives from a traditional oncologist?
Some of the oncologists are very open and interested in dialogue and interested in working together, but some are not, and that’s what creates a problem for the patient. Up to 85 percent of people with the diagnosis of cancer use some form of complementary or alternative medicine, and so we really do need to collaborate.
What specifically is the role of integrative medicine in cancer and post-cancer care?
When you think about healing-oriented medicine there are two parts: One is that the body has an enormous potential to heal, and you want to support all the ways in which it can do that. It also means that we hold a different relationship with our patients, so that we really try to get to understand them.
What would you consider a standard prescription for cancer survivors, in terms of adopting healing practices?
I will talk with them about diets; we talk about their physical activity. Cancer treatment tends to be very depleting, so how do you nourish yourself, how do you get your energy back? Then we talk about spirituality and whether their sense of meaning has changed. We talk about medications they should be taking, and we also talk about preventive care.
Explain the importance of the mind-body connection in healing.
There are a whole lot of mind-body practices that I consider in the realm of relaxation practices. That can include breath work, tai chi or yoga. We would use the mind-body connection to try to enhance healing. There’s evidence that it reduces anxiety, and there’s some evidence it reduces anticipatory nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy.
Which integrative therapies have been documented in research studies to benefit cancer survivors?
There’s a tremendous amount of research on nutrition and cancer, and growing amounts for specific dietary recommendations for specific kinds of cancer. Part of the challenge is that the [nutritional] supplement companies don’t stand to benefit from researching their products as they cannot patent natural products, and if the study is negative they may lose millions of dollars in sales.
What is being done to educate and train medical students and young physicians in holistic and integrative medicine?
We have developed a training fellowship and trained 16 oncologists (from among the 300 physicians mentioned above). We’re actually in the earliest stages of working to develop an integrative oncology fellowship program. We have a textbook that Dr. [Andrew] Weil, who is the director and founder of our program, is co-editing with one of our graduates. So there’s a lot going on.