One of Caitlin O’Connell’s first reactions to chemotherapy was nausea. Debilitating nausea, she said, so bad that it would leave her couch-bound for days after treatment.
Such side effects are one reason that O’Connell — a 32-year-old breast cancer patient — is looking forward to receiving holistic treatment in the complementary medicine suite of the James M. Stockman Cancer Institute in Frederick.
The rooms have been part of the center since it opened in July, but only recently became available to patients for tai chi, yoga, acupuncture, and other therapies that aren’t often included in traditional cancer treatment.
“I’m hoping that they can only increase my ability to bounce back a little with each chemo treatment,” O’Connell said. “That those alternative, natural therapies will bring out what my body is already able to do.”
The new suite brings Frederick County in line with a nationwide trend of combining traditional oncology with integrative medicine, a term that generally refers to non-mainstream therapies such as Reiki or meditation. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York now has a complementary medicine center, as does the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas — two of the most renowned institutes for cancer research and treatment in the country.
For the last several years, researchers and oncologists have become increasingly open to the idea of combining mainstream cancer treatments with holistic practices that can improve outcomes or quality of life for patients, said Dr. Patrick Mansky, the medical director for medical oncology at the James M. Stockman Cancer Institute.
“There’s a fair amount of evidence that, for some patients, complementary therapies can be helpful to provide additional support,” he said. “With the understanding that this is rather state-of-the-art, and offers additional opportunity for patients to receive optimal care.”
Mansky himself has firsthand experience with integrative care — part of the reason he was interested in establishing a complementary medicine suite at the Stockman Institute. For eight years, he worked as a clinical investigator at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (part of the National Institutes of Health), conducting research on the use of complementary treatments for cancer patients.
One of his studies compared the use of tai chi — a martial art that incorporates mindfulness and meditation — with traditional exercise among cancer survivors. Another looked at the effects of acupuncture on chemotherapy-induced nausea. In his time at the agency, Mansky also helped found the Integrative Medicine Consult Service at the NIH, which provides advice and referrals on complementary treatments to clinical physicians.
Mansky’s experience makes him well-versed in evidence-based forms of integrative medicine. Massage therapy, for example, has been shown to provide at least short-term symptom relief to cancer patients in clinical trials. Acupuncture can help control nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy, while yoga has been shown in some studies to reduce cancer-related side effects such as fatigue, sleep loss and loss of appetite.
The therapies can also have mental benefits for cancer patients, who often find themselves exhausted or overwhelmed during treatment. O’Connell said her surgeon at the Center for Breast Care in Frederick specifically referred her to Mansky for follow-up chemotherapy, knowing his support for complementary care and the services available at the Stockman Institute.
“I think she hand-picked him because I was so young and because it’s been such an emotional journey,” O’Connell said. “I don’t think anyone expects, at 32, to hear you have two forms of breast cancer and that you have to go through a mastectomy and chemotherapy. So, I was feeling pretty alone and scared.”
Many of the integrative practitioners at the Stockman Institute emphasize a mind-body approach to care. Those include Houng and Alexander King, a father-son duo who provide acupuncture at the cancer center and at a private clinic on Thomas Johnson Drive.
Their acupuncture services follow the ch’i flow philosophy — a belief that inserting needles into specific points on the body can aid the flow of energy and relieve some of the symptoms related to cancer or more invasive traditional treatments. Alexander said that patients also come in for the cognitive benefits of the therapy.
“It’s true that a lot of patients come to us for pain-related reasons, and we can help ease up their pain,” he said. “But a lot of them get treatment for the emotional aspect. I think it helps them settle everything down in their mind.”
Equally important for patients are diet and exercise — components of care that aren’t often handled by traditional oncologists. The Stockman Institute works with Ashley Russell, a doctor of naturopathic medicine at the Frederick Natural Health Center, to provide referrals for supplements that won’t counteract with other cancer medications.
Some patients also struggle with weight, Russell said. Maintaining it is important for patients struggling with treatment-related appetite loss, but losing weight can also improve the health outcomes for patients with certain kinds of cancer.
While diet and exercise may seem straightforward, many patients come to her with specific questions on what to eat.
“We can address specifically what to eat and break it down into steps, like, ‘Here are some options for breakfast,’” Russell said. “Some people really are at a loss. And they’re overwhelmed because they’re also struggling with their diagnosis or treatment.”
The integration of complementary care into traditional oncology is seen as a step forward by many integrative practitioners, who often treat cancer patients independently at their own clinics. Much of the interest in alternative medicine is totally patient-driven, according to Mansky.
Alexander said that he and his father see cancer patients at their clinic every week, many of whom are seeking a second opinion or additional options for treatment.
“So, to combine Eastern and Western medicine in Frederick — that’s cutting-edge,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”