Helping cancer patients on a journey
Hal Gunn was 17 when he started meditating. The doctor admits it was by fluke. That initial experience of mindful relaxation proved to be a turning point.
Hal Gunn was 17 years old when he started meditating. The Vancouver doctor admits it was by fluke.
Some of Gunn’s friends had begun incorporating the calming practice into their training regimen for competitive rowing. Gunn was sufficiently intrigued to give it a try. He was hooked.
That initial experience of mindful relaxation—of the “connection to the universe,” as he puts it—proved to be a turning point for the Dawson Creek, BC, native. It gave him a glimpse into the interconnectedness of body, mind, and soul. Realizing the potential healing power of that union, Gunn decided to pursue medicine.
He quickly discovered, however, that the link between mind and body was lacking in so much of his post-secondary education.
“I went into med school perhaps naively,” Gunn says in an interview with alive. “I didn’t learn about health and healing but about illness treatment.”
Gunn never abandoned his belief in a holistic approach to health, though. In 1997, along with Dr. Roger Rogers—a long-time advocate of complementary care and one of Gunn’s medical professors at UBC—he cofounded InspireHealth.
Formerly known as the Centre for Integrated Healing, the nonprofit organization aims to incorporate evidence-based natural health therapies into cancer treatment and to support patients on a holistic healing journey. Its doctors are the only ones in Canada to be publicly funded to provide integrated cancer care.
Simply put, integrated care encourages patients to be proactive about their health by adopting simple lifestyle habits such as healthy nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, supplements, and emotional and social support to complement conventional treatments. Besides helping people to recover and improve their quality of life, research indicates such approaches may be associated with a reduced risk of cancer recurrence.
“We want to transform the anxiety and the fear that naturally accompany a cancer diagnosis ... into inspired action, into a psychospiritual shift, to help people support themselves,” Gunn says.
“We ask people about their intentions or goals and how they can best accomplish those. We meet people where they’re at with their prognosis and help them in whatever way they deem is important at that time. It might be nutrition; it might be emotional and spiritual aspects.
“Mind, body, and spirit: they’re a unity, and they all play a role in integrated care.”
Gunn’s corner office is abundant in natural light. A tall yucca plant grows in one corner, and the windowsills are adorned with a few rose quartzes, gemstones that are said to have healing properties.
The CEO of InspireHealth says there’s a shift occurring when it comes to the way alternative treatments are being perceived. More and more people, patients and health professionals alike, are acknowledging the validity and benefits of complementary medicine.
That shift is being driven in part by the thousands of men and women—more than 5,500 to date—who have turned to InspireHealth after receiving a universally dreaded
“There’s a growing recognition of the importance of health and healing in our own health care system,” says Gunn, who last year won the Dr. Rogers Prize for Excellence in Complementary and Alternative Medicine for his commitment to integrated care. (He shared the $250,000 prize with Calgary’s Badri Rickhi.)
“We currently don’t have a health care system. We have an illness-treatment system. There’s a growing recognition that supporting our health can play as important, or even greater, a role as in the treatment of illness.
“Conventional medicine has been profoundly disconnected from wisdom. It has been disconnected from our own wisdom—practising doctors—and the wisdom of our patients.
“We have knowledge—but not wisdom. We rely so heavily on intellect and are so enamoured by knowledge that we’ve lost track of what healers have known all along: that the mind and body are one.”
Central to InspireHealth’s philosophy is patient empowerment. People are encouraged to play an active part in their own treatment plan. Personal empowerment is respected, and participants are urged to explore all of their options so they can make informed decisions about their care.
In fact, research points to improved clinical outcomes among patients who are equal partners with their health care practitioners during their treatment and recovery. Taking charge, instead of feeling overwhelmed and overpowered by the medical system, can help people get better and stay that way.
“As we begin to explore these ideas, it shifts our concept of what illness is,” Gunn explains. “Illness often represents an imbalance. Part of our goal is to help people realize that illness presents an opportunity for learning and growth. There’s immense potential within for health and healing, which becomes a lifelong journey.”
InspireHealth’s team of health professionals doesn’t replace people’s own doctors and oncologists but rather works with them. Gunn acknowledges that BC has some of the best cancer treatment programs in the world, and that surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are crucial when it comes to conquering cancer.
But such approaches do nothing to address underlying symptoms, prevent disease, or nurture spiritual well-being.
In other words, according to those who work at and visit InspireHealth, there’s much more to cancer than the tumour itself.
Research Based Therapies
There’s clearly a demand for a return to healing’s roots: InspireHealth saw its number of patients increase to 507 in 2009, up from 402 in 2008—a 26 percent jump.
Interest in integrated health is hardly limited to the West Coast. In 1999, for instance, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York launched its Integrative Medicine Service to address the emotional, social, and spiritual concerns of its patients and their families. It offers reflexology, acupressure, and guided imagery, among other therapies.
Last winter His Royal Highness Prince Charles visited InspireHealth during his Canadian tour. A firm believer in holistic care, he developed the Prince’s Foundation for Integrative Health, which promotes the union of healthy lifestyle choices—eating nutritiously, doing meaningful work, being part of a community, getting out into nature, and exercising—with conventional medical treatments.
There is mounting evidence that natural approaches to health can significantly decrease the risk of cancer recurrence, increase survival, and help patients cope with the toll of mainstream therapies.
Consider research that emerged last year alone:
Keeping Costs Down
A fiscal case can also be made for the shift to a holistic health care system. “There’s a financial crisis in the health care system,” Gunn says. “It’s not sustainable.”
Public health care costs are soaring because of demographics—the aging of the baby boomers is putting a strain on the public system—and cancer treatment in particular is seeing a rise in costs, Gunn asserts. Cancer is a key cause of premature death in Canada.
In 2009 alone there were 171,000 new cases of cancer and 75,000 deaths from cancer, according to Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, the cost of drugs to treat people with the disease can reach $50,000 per treatment course, never mind the expense associated with hospital visits.
Gunn argues that integrated care is not only cost effective, but it also diminishes public spending by reducing the risk of relapse and decreasing the number of expensive drugs that are used as a last resort in cases of incurable cancer. The cost of integrated cancer care such as that provided by InspireHealth, he notes, is less than $2,000 for each new cancer patient.
“The more we spend on illness treatment, the sicker we become,” Gunn adds. “That’s the paradox. If we just treat illness, we’re not treating the underlying cause, and we’re making things worse rather than better. A true healing system addresses the underlying cause of illness, not just the symptoms.”
A Place of Peace
If a cancer treatment centre brings to mind a sterile environment and stark surroundings, InspireHealth is just the opposite.
Located in Vancouver’s west side False Creek neighbourhood, the welcoming office is furnished with big armchairs, and its softly lit living room walls are painted the colours of a rainforest. It’s there that the clinic holds weekly fireside chats: free and casual sessions with one of its doctors for people to learn more about InspireHealth’s services.
At InspireHealth physicians spend 90 minutes with every patient on their first visit.
“We explore their situation more broadly and determine how we can support their health,” Gunn explains. “We make an individual plan.”
Patients are encouraged to take the centre’s Life program, a two-day, $375 workshop that covers the basic aspects of integrative care and is believed to be fundamental to the healing process.
InspireHealth offers a range of therapies. When given to complement chemotherapy or radiation, acupuncture is covered by the provincial medical services plan. In other cases it’s provided on a fee-for-service basis, as is the aid of a naturopath, nutritionist, massage therapist, and counsellor.
Patients also have access to support groups and ongoing free classes in subjects such as cooking, yoga, and shiatsu, among others, intended to enhance all aspects of well-being. Staff members walk the walk. Every morning they gather for a 15-minute group meditation.
“The environment we create is really important,” Gunn says. “There is such a thing as a healing environment, one that’s made up of physical and nonphysical components.
“The physical space ... helps support the body’s shift to calmness and peace where healing occurs. If we are in a calm and peaceful state ourselves, we entrain that to people we’re interacting with: if we feel anxious, they feel anxious; if we feel calm, they feel calm.
“It’s especially important when caring for people dealing with cancer to help realign their bodies with calmness and peace. Practically, for us, that means ... to reconnect with our own sense of well-being, which people come to understand at InspireHealth. It’s a psychospiritual journey that lasts for life.” Integrated care continues to play a role in overall wellness even when a case of cancer is terminal. It can help people accept their situation and enable them to carry on with dignity and inner peace.
“It’s a real honour to support people on that journey, to help them connect with what’s really important in their lives—they aren’t things that advertising tells us are important,” Gunn says. Gunn, who exercises daily, whether he’s in-line skating, cycling, running, or working out at the gym, also practises yoga and likes to dance.
“We can all learn to take better care of ourselves, to balance mind, body, and soul,” he says. “I continue to learn every day.”
The Future is Unified
InspireHealth has high hopes of making integrated care more mainstream. Gunn says the clinic is discussing collaborative efforts with centres elsewhere in Canada and around the world. During Prince Charles’s stop in Vancouver, he personally invited InspireHealth to collaborate with his organization to promote physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Closer to home, InspireHealth is expanding access to patients throughout British Columbia, and last winter it offered its Life program in Kamloops.
The centre also recently hired a director of research who will spearhead the group’s goal of having a study on the effectiveness of complementary care peer-reviewed and published in a well-respected national medical journal.
Bringing InspireHealth’s vision to people near and far, Gunn says, will only benefit society as a whole.
“When we connect with ourselves on our healing journey, we connect with nature, with others, with the community—all the things that really create a meaningful life,” he says. “We have a passion for inspiring people to live happy, healthy, passionate lives.”
Often referred to as a form of energy healing, therapeutic touch is said to reduce stress and promote healing. The therapist often does not touch the patient’s body at all but rather positions her hands a few inches above to direct energy.
A Japanese technique of light touch, reiki helps establish a normal and healthy flow of qi, the body’s life force or energy.
This hands-on physical-emotional release therapy, which is based on the way feelings affect the body and brain, helps people process emotions. Practitioners believe many health problems occur as a result of the body’s physical response to trapped, painful feelings.
Emphasizing preventive health, naturopathic medicine draws on a variety of therapies to promote well-being, including nutritional supplementation, herbalism, and hydrotherapy.
A fundamental element of Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves inserting tiny needles through the skin at specific points along the body’s meridians to help unblock qi.
This ancient practice focuses on quieting and calming the mind, connecting with personal intuition, and learning to be in the moment.
Homeopaths treat illness with diluted remedies that are chosen on the principle that like cures like.
Music has creative and emotional qualities that are used in a therapeutic way to enhance self-awareness, self-expression, and communication.
Integrated Care Across the Country
InspireHealth is the only centre in Canada to provide publicly funded integrative cancer care. However, other clinics share a similar philosophy.
Based in Toronto, Wellspring has partnership programs throughout Ontario and in some other parts of the country. With courses in everything from laughter yoga and tai chi to writing and drumming, Wellspring helps people with cancer cope. wellspring.ca
Lemmo Integrated Health Care
Affiliated with InspireHealth, naturopathic doctor Walter Lemmo also treats cancer patients in his private practice. lemmo.com
Vital Victoria Naturopathic Clinic
Dr. Neil McKinney, who practises in Victoria, BC, was the founding professor of naturopathic oncology at New Westminster’s Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine. Among the therapies he uses are traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. drneilmckinney.ca
Integrated Health Clinic
Founded by two naturopaths, the Fort Langley, BC, clinic does not specialize in any particular disease but offers services such as chelation, colon hydrotherapy, chiropractic care, and hormone balancing. integratedhealthclinic.com
Canadian Partnership Against Cancer
This Toronto-based organization is bringing together researchers from Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre and Cancer Care Nova Scotia to boost integrated, whole-person cancer care across the country. partnershipagainstcancer.ca