If there’s good thing to come from fighting cancer, it’s the outpouring of support patients receive from their family, friends and doctors and clinicians.
After the last session of chemotherapy, however, the unfamiliar road of survivorship awaits.
Hollywood resident Adam Shattenkirk, 54, was diagnosed with HPV-induced tonsil cancer in 2014. He had surgery at the University of Miami Hospital, but the cancer came back six months later. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation and finished radiation therapy in September of last year. Shortly after, he started treatment with integrative medicine with Dr. Ashwin Mehta, then medical director of integrative medicine at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami.
Mehta describes integrative medicine like this: “The body is a garden and the cancer is an unwelcome weed. It’s a radiation oncologist’s job to eradicate the weed. It’s the integrative medicine team’s job to help strengthen and nourish the garden – and to make sure the soil is inhospitable to that weed from ever coming back.”
When Mehta moved to Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood last year to launch the Memorial Division of Integrative Medicine, Shattenkirk followed.
“To sit with this man, for an hour,” says Shattenkirk, “and talk about vitamins, nutrients, proper supplements, what blueberries do for you, what broccoli does for you … I was floored.”
Mehta recommended a couple different programs for Shattenkirk: Strength-training workouts with an exercise physiologist at Memorial’s fitness center, meditation and meeting with a nutritionist to find organic-based formula because he was on a feeding tube.
Shattenkirk says integrative medicine has helped his mental state significantly.
“Going through cancer is a bit of train wreck,’’ he said. “It’s tolling on the body and mind. I’ve got a nine-inch scar from my left ear to my Adam’s apple. To know that you’re being supported through multiple disciplines provides a very positive mental state.”
The pillars of integrative medicine are built around nutrition, exercise, reducing anxiety through mindfulness, meditation and yoga, and practices such as acupuncture to relieve pain.
Many of these wellness techniques have been practiced for centuries in Eastern medicine.
“A lot of these ancient healing traditions inform what we study in the research area of integrative medicine,” Mehta says, “and we’re very open minded with what is going to enhance the clients’ experience and what is going to help empower our patients to learn that they can take charge of their own health by implementing some of these positive behaviors.”
In late 2013, South Miami resident Maria Montes went for her annual mammogram at Baptist Hospital. She says she has dense breasts, so an ultrasound was ordered. Montes, who retired last year after working for 32 years as a pharmaceutical sales rep, says “there was something there that they saw and they said to come back in six months.”
Her follow-up ultrasound showed the same mass; doctors ordered a biopsy.
“I had the biopsy done and then I got the call. In one second your whole life changes,” she says.
She tested positive for Stage 2 breast cancer in her left breast but opted for a bilateral mastectomy in January 2014.
“First it’s denial. And then you don’t want to say the word. It’s like the worst word in the world. You try to say ‘cancer’ and it doesn’t come out,” she says. “I’ve always been the epitome of health.”
Her oncologist, Dr. Grace Wang, recommended four sessions of chemotherapy to reduce the reoccurrence.
“Chemotherapy is really tough. It just drains you. It totally incapacitated me for days at a time, over a period of three months,” Montes said. “You become a totally different person, not only outwardly but inwardly.
“One of the things that my oncologist made sure of is that I had therapy — that I could talk to somebody, a psychologist here at Baptist who specializes in breast cancer patients — she helps you through it. That’s very important, the support.”
In addition, Montes has been working with a nutritionist and attending group nutrition classes at Baptist.
“We talk a lot about fiber, reducing sugars and how to understand sugar because sometimes you look at something and you say, ‘Oh, it only has 20 grams of sugar.’ But you don’t really understand that until you sit down with a nutritionist and she tells you, ‘That’s a lot. That’s equivalent to five teaspoons of sugar.’ ’’
Substituting protein for carbs is another thing she hass learned.
“If you really crave carbs, we learned that there’s a zero-carb type of noodle, called shirataki [made from Japanese yams]. It’s so good and you’d swear you’re eating pasta. That’s been a big hit in my house.”
Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women besides skin cancer, with one in eight women diagnosed with it each year, according to breastcancer.org.
“By 2020, there’ll be 18 million cancer survivors,” says Dr. Beatriz Currier, medical director for cancer support services at the Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Health South Florida. “MCI [Miami Cancer Institute] is developing a comprehensive and patient-centric survivorship care model for all of our cancer survivors across all cancer types.”
She says there are four distinct goals of the survivorship program:
▪ Provide all patients with a comprehensive cancer treatment summary document that lists the type of cancer they’ve been diagnosed with, and all the treatment that they’ve undergone
▪ Assess and treat any long-term effects developed during treatment
▪ Make sure patients are undergoing surveillance visits and screenings to ensure recurrent cancer has not been missed.
▪ Educate and empower survivors so they start making healthy changes to their lifestyle.
She’s incorporated these recommendations from the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Cancer Society.
“I think knowledge is empowering to our survivors, and that’s why education, in terms of counseling patients regarding what they need to know about living healthier lifestyles, is such a critical component of survivorship care,” she says. “The goal is to get them back to where they were fully functional prior to diagnosis. We want them to have their quality of life back — that’s critical.”
Patients interested in learning more about Miami Cancer Institute’s upcoming cancer support services and programs can call (786) 594-4224.