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Health & Balance

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Integrative Medicine: A Patient's View

One cancer patient's journey through the worlds of conventional and nontraditional medicine.

A Mix of Nontraditional and Mainstream continued...

Cancer patients still undergo mainstream treatment, and none of the complementary therapies aim to treat the cancer itself, says Barrie Cassileth, PhD, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service. As she puts it, the service is designed to "deal with everything but the tumor." That means helping patients with stress, pain, and anxiety, as well as providing them with ways to manage symptoms and increase their sense of well-being.

Epstein fully embraces conventional treatment for her cancer. But the other world intrigued her, especially when she recalled how her mother had turned to acupuncture many years ago to kick a cigarette habit for good.

"Throughout the entire chemo, I would always go to acupuncture the day before," Epstein says. She believes that it eased her side effects, such as nausea and vomiting. "It also helps with sleep and anxiety," she says. "Sometimes I fall asleep on the [acupuncture] table even."

Seeking Treatments

When she developed nerve damage from chemotherapy, a Sloan-Kettering doctor trained in herbs prescribed vitamin B-6, which Epstein believes helped to improve her symptoms quickly. Whenever Epstein wants to try a new herb or supplement, she has to email him to make sure that he approves.

She has also tried massage, reflexology, and reiki. The Integrative Medicine Service describes reflexology as an "ancient practice of applying pressure to specific parts of the feet and hands" to reduce stress, relieve pain, and increase circulation. Reiki "promotes the healing of physical and emotional ailments through gentle touch."

Seeing nontraditional healers, as well as a social worker and mainstream psychiatrist, helps Epstein to feel cared for and less alone. "If you're like me, where you're not working and you've got a lot of free time during the day, it's hard. I think people who are combating illness can feel pretty isolated."

Epstein also embraces meditation as a means of marshalling hope and gaining some sense of control. "It's very empowering," she says. That's crucial because her cancer recurred in 2004, and she's been battling since then to beat the disease a second time.

"For me, the meditation reinforces all the other things that I'm doing. I'm on chemo and I'm doing the traditional medical treatment. The meditation makes me feel that I'm doing something above and beyond to put this back into remission or to cure it."

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Reviewed on March 10, 2006

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