Cancer patients and doctors alike are turning toward holistic medicine to help combat the difficult effects of the disease and treatments.
Integrative medicine allows patients to work on both mental and physical symptoms while continuing their regular treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In addition to their primary treatments, patients talk to psychiatrists, nutritionists, get acupuncture and exercise in order to reduce stress and improve wellness.
It looks at a person’s overall well-being, rather than just curing their cancer.
Dr. Alejandra Pérez, director of Breast Cancer Centers at Memorial Cancer Institute, part of Memorial Healthcare in Hollywood, has worked with integrative medicine for 15 years.
“You're not just treating a tumor, you're treating a human being,” Perez said
Integrative medicine does not replace regular medical treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, but rather supplements those treatments to help combat side effects. Psychiatrists help patients deal with the emotional stress of the disease, acupuncture to combat pain and hot flashes and meditation for relaxation.
“In the treatment of cancer, it's all about having options,” Pérez said.
Karyn Altman, 56, has been using integrative medicine since she was diagnosed with cancer in January. She has been meditating since she was a teenager, so it was natural for her to keep it up when she was diagnosed. She meditates, sees a nutritionist, talks to a psychiatrist, does yoga and goes walking in the mornings.
“These modalities can help to keep you focused on the good things and the-not-so good things,” Altman said.
She advocates for cancer patients to work with integrative medicine because she said the treatments have helped her stay calm during treatments, and afterward.
“It helps you to remember that you're still here and whole inside … and keep the rest of your churning because you're not always going to be in treatment,” Altman said.
Doctors at hospitals like Memorial and Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami Beach work with patients to choose which therapies or treatments will help them throughout their treatments.
Dr. Mike Cusnir, an oncologist, has helped Mount Sinai develop its integrative medicine program after completing a two-year fellowship at the University of Arizona. Cusnir stresses that integrative medicine is meant to improve quality of life.
“Are we treating the cancer? No, but we're improving the quality of the treatments,” he said.
Despite skepticism about nontraditional medicine by some in the medical community, both Cusnir and Pérez point to studies and statistics that prove options like therapy, meditation and acupuncture can help ease the stress of cancer. Cusnir told of one patient who was undergoing radiation therapy for brain cancer and was able to use meditation, rather than heavy sedatives, during the sessions. While it may seem small, it makes a huge difference for patients.
“They’re able to drive themselves home after treatments,” he said.
Pérez worked with someone skilled in Chinese medicine to use herbs and acupuncture when a chemotherapy drug caused diarrhea in patients and no medication would reduce the side effects.
Both doctors say that patients must keep lines of communication open between themselves and their doctors. When Pérez surveyed her patients 15 years ago, she found as many as 80 percent were using some kind of integrative medicine, but they were not always telling their doctors. The danger lies in patients taking an approach that will decrease the effectiveness of their cancer treatment.
Pérez said it is critical that patients select doctors and centers who are willing to work with them to treat every aspect of the disease.
“It’s all about selecting the right center,” she said.