"I have good news," facilitator Carol Thatcher tells the 20 cancer patients who are beginning the Centre for Integrated Healing's Introductory Program. Good news isn't what this group of people has been used to getting lately.
“I have good news,” facilitator Carol Thatcher tells the 20 cancer patients who are beginning the Centre for Integrated Healing’s Introductory Program. Good news isn’t what this group of people has been used to getting lately.
Imagine hearing the worst news from your physician: you’ve got cancer. In response to this crisis, you may be faced with some tough choices: Do you grab on to the chemotherapy/
radiation life raft that the conventional medical system holds out to you? Or do you jump into the sea of alternative treatments, wondering which, among the myriad of options, are the best for you? Where do you turn? Who can you trust?
There is one place in Canada where cancer patients can find their own answers to these and other questions without being forced to make the black-or-white choice between conventional and alternative cancer treatments. This place offers them the best of both worlds.
One of a Kind
Founded in 1997 by Order of BC recipient Dr. Roger Rogers and current medical director and CEO Dr. Hal Gunn, the Centre for Integrated Healing (CIH) is Canada’s only not-for-profit complementary cancer care centre. The Centre is primarily supported by private foundations, such as the BC Cancer Agency and the Canadian Cancer Agency, and individual donors. The agencies’ support, says Gunn, has been helpful in mainstreaming the concept of integrated cancer care.
All patient visits with its medical physicians are covered by BC’s Medical Services Plan (MSP). Despite a recent climate of health care cutbacks in the province, funding for the CIH has never come under fire.
A naturopathic doctor, a registered nutritional consultant, a counsellor, a music therapist, and a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine work with the Centre’s medical doctors, and they can be consulted, on site, for a fee. Patients may receive acupuncture, vitamins, massage therapy, or music therapy, all under the care of a medical physician. Patients of the Centre can take free classes in relaxation and visualization, meditation, yoga, nutrition and cooking, and, with family or friends, participate in support groups. (To read more about the CIH Eight-Step Patient Approach to complementary cancer care, see our web exclusive at alive.com.)
The Body-Mind Connection
That “good news” that Carol Thatcher has for cancer patients is that there is an increasing collection of credible, current research demonstrating the effectiveness of the body-mind connection on healing.
We all know that an injured body can heal itself, given the right support; broken bones, when set, will mend; open wounds, if cleaned and bandaged, will close–and it’s not a physician who sends blood cells to repair the injuries. Our bodies do this healing work. So how can patients and physicians best support the body’s own healing process when the diagnosis is cancer?
The future of cancer care, say the practitioners at the Centre, is based on the knowledge that mind and body are inseparable; illness is not separate from self, and an empowered sense of self translates, on a physical level, to an empowered immune system, better able to help the body heal itself.
Multiple studies with various types of cancer patients show that body-mind practices, such as meditation and guided imagery, not only help cancer patients deal with disease- and treatment-related symptoms such as pain and nausea, but have a direct impact on the efficacy of their immune systems. How? Studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) show that meditation, for example, activates parts of the brain involved in the control of the autonomic nervous system, a channel of communication between the brain and the immune system. We can activate our immune systems with our minds.
While integration of body, mind, and spirit is the “foundation and essence of the work we do” at the Centre, says Dr. Janice Wright, one of the on-staff physicians, integrated healing also means bridging the divide between the patient and the practitioner, as well as the gap between conventional and complementary health care treatments. That’s why you’ll find a music therapist in the office next to one of the MDs’, and patients who are encouraged to decide what mix of treatments are right for them.
You’re a Person, Not a Tumour
Essential to the model of treatment offered at the Centre is a new paradigm in which the cancer patient is seen as a whole person. Conventional cancer care is based on a tumour-oriented model that focuses on curing cancer by attacking the tumour with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. In this model, the person has only a small role to play in his or her own recovery from cancer; only dire medical interventions lead to recovery. Furthermore, doctor-patient communication is one-way: top-down.
In a person-based model of cancer care, however, the self is the focus of care, and the person with cancer plays an integral role in healing and recovery. The cancer patient is fully engaged in decision-making about his or her health care options and participates in two-way communications with his or her health practitioners.
Conventional medical treatment is seen as “one spoke in the wheel” of a holistic approach to healing that also includes using complementary medical therapies, exercise, healthy diet, and nutritional supplements to support the body; reducing stress, making emotional and spiritual connections, strengthening personal autonomy, and–most importantly–maintaining hope and the will to live. The latter is “the most fundamental of all the foundations of recovery. Without a will to live,” says the Centre’s booklet for cancer patients, “recovery has little meaning and medical therapies limited relevance.”
You may be familiar with the term “spontaneous healing,” which is also the title of a book by Dr. Andrew Weil, to describe the phenomena of unexplained, even seemingly miraculous recoveries from cancer and other serious diseases. Thousands of cases were documented in Spontaneous Remission: An Annotated Bibliography (Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1993).
What the scientists who collected these case histories found is that the recoveries weren’t so miraculous after all; the people who were inexplicably healed exhibited a set of shared characteristics, including “a deep belief in their bodies’ ability to heal, in spite of being told by their doctors that their illnesses were terminal.” (See healing.bc.ca/healing_intro.shtml for the whole list of characteristics.)
More than 4,000 cancer patients have been treated at the Centre for Integrated Healing since it first opened its doors, and the practitioners there have now begun to collect their own stories of people who’ve made “remarkable” (a term they prefer to “spontaneous”) recoveries from cancer. What the Centre’s physicians have learned is that the many things people can do to support their own healing are as important as the medical treatments they may undergo.
Mixing Antioxidants and Radiation?
The scientific evidence that supports the use of natural health products such as melatonin, selenium, and vitamin C in cancer care continues to grow. Some oncologists, however, advise their patients to avoid antioxidants because they could interfere with the free-radical damage intentionally caused by radiation and some chemotherapy drugs.
However, several randomized controlled trials (the “gold standard” of scientific evidence) show that antioxidants can reduce the side effects of radiation and chemo, may increase response to treatment and improve survival rates, and are therefore a beneficial adjunct treatment.
Complementary Treatments for Cancer
As part of a holistic path to recovery that involves avoiding environmental toxins, adopting a healthy diet, and following a regimen of well-studied vitamins, herbs, and supplements, patients at the Centre have access to a range of complementary cancer therapies.
Each of the treatments is legal, safe, and has a record (in some cases scientific and in others anecdotal) of enhancing the healing process. Complementary cancer care treatments administered under the care of a medical or naturopathic physician can include
For more information, see healing.bc.ca. In 2007 the CIH will change its name to Inspire Health.