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Cancer Care: Mind, Body and Soul

Doctors increasingly encourage patients to round out their traditional treatment with acupuncture, visualization and other complementary therapies.


Doctors had hoped to operate on the cancer in Rhio Weir's lungs that January morning almost two years ago. But when Weir, a 63-year-old underwriter for a title company, awoke, he was told the tumors were in the lining of his lungs and couldn't be removed.

"The doctor told me the news was very bad, that the only thing I could do was radiation and chemotherapy," the Los Angeles man recalls.

But there was something else Weir could do--and did. He stepped outside the circle of conventional cancer therapy for aspects of his treatment. And he found that conventional medicine bowed to his wishes.

In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, Weir received acupuncture and took Chinese herbs, adopted an Eastern-style diet, attended a support group and saw a spiritual healer--all with varying degrees of acceptance from his doctors. His primary doctor was "very open" to alternative medicine; his oncologist was tolerant of it. And though one surgeon objected to Weir's request to listen to soothing music on a headset during surgery, an anesthesiologist in the room intervened, saying the music "was a good idea."

"If conventional doctors are secure in what they do, then they shouldn't feel threatened by alternative medicine," Weir says. "No one really said 'no' to me."

What was unthinkable 10 years ago--that cancer doctors would sanctify their patients' sojourns into alternative medicine--is today a reality in many clinics nationwide. While steadfast in their belief that science-based therapies offer people the best chance of getting well, more doctors acknowledge the gaps in their rigidly fact-based model. They concede that some cancer patients in need of emotional support, relief from unrelenting nausea, even hope, are finding it outside of traditional medicine.

"Five years ago, most conventional oncologists weren't even thinking about these therapies," says Dr. James Gordon, an expert in complementary medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. "The interest now is certainly not universal. But young oncologists, in particular, are coming up against the limitations of what they can do. They are looking for approaches to help their patients deal with the experience of cancer."

Last summer, Gordon offered a program to train health care professionals to become a "cancer guide," defined as a professional who helps patients deal with all aspects of cancer care: physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual. Expecting mostly nurses and therapists, Gordon was surprised when two dozen doctors showed up for the class.

"Oncologists are recognizing that this is not an either-or phenomenon or a cultural war. It's about: How do we create the most effective care for our patients?" says Gordon, author of the book "Comprehensive Cancer Care: Integrating Alternative, Complementary, and Conventional Therapies."

The sheer number of cancer patients interested in complementary and alternative medical therapies is clearly the catalyst for change in oncology. According to a study published last year, 69% of cancer patients said they used some form of complementary medicine, and 89% said they would like more information on the topic. In a survey of parents of child cancer patients at Columbia University, 84% reporting using at least one alternative therapy. Surveys show that many people with heart disease, arthritis and other diseases are also interested in alternative therapies. But cancer patients, perhaps because their need for treatment is acute, appear to be especially assertive in exploring all of their options, experts note.

"The numbers of cancer patients doing this are so vast, doctors have to be more open," says Judith Jacobson, an assistant professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia. "Patient after patient asks about complementary and alternative medicine. And if the patient doesn't ask, the spouse asks."

Though many doctors still disapprove of the use of any scientifically untested therapy, signs of oncology's acceptance of nontraditional forms of medicine are apparent. The federal government's cancer unit, the National Cancer Institute, established its own office of complementary and alternative medicine and increased its budget from $36.6 million in 1999 to $47 million this year. Owing to such funding, studies on alternative medicine have become regular features in scientific cancer journals.

Many hospitals are hiring alternative-medicine experts or are launching departments devoted to non-Western research and treatments. Some doctors are even learning to perform alternative treatments, particularly acupuncture.

"Now is the time for that proverbial level playing field where we look at all therapies the same way and ask: What difference do they make?" says Gordon. "I think the cancer field is moving to that place."

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