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The integrative difference
A team of practitioners and support at home help cancer patients thrive


October 2016

Years before Amberlea Childs was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was an educator, founding a nonprofit dedicated to breast health awareness in Florida. Committed to an active lifestyle, she also taught fitness classes. Then she and her husband relocated to Milwaukee for his job, and she began volunteering for Susan G. Komen Southeast Wisconsin and working at the Wisconsin Athletic Club. A year and a half later, she was diagnosed with stage IIIC breast cancer at age 36.

"Who knew my number would be pulled?" she says. "I’ve been a breast health educator for over a decade, and I’ve been telling women you want to feel for something that’s hard, defined — a BB or jellybean — and mine never felt like that. It felt like a wet cotton ball."

Her aggressive cancer required aggressive treatment: chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries. "I knew that I had to do something to nourish the body while all these things in a sense were harming the body," she says.

Childs heard Dr. Keith Block speak at a conference years earlier, and his integrative approach to cancer — marrying traditional cancer treatments with complementary ones to minimize side effects, reduce stress and boost immunity — resonated with her. So she chose The Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment. Every two weeks she headed to the Chicago area for a day of chemotherapy and appointments with various practitioners, including a dietitian, psychologist, massage therapist and yoga therapist.

"I’d have a schedule, but it wasn’t like you were tied to it," she says. "If I couldn’t do yoga, then maybe I’d lay on my back and put my feet on a chair, and they’d do reflexology, and they would work with me where I was. My treatment was geared toward me and what I needed."

Emotional Support

In fact, other integrative facilities share this personalized approach to cancer care. "We know that not all cancers are the same and not all patients are the same," says Dr. Corey Shamah, an oncologist-hematologist with Aurora Health Care, whose sites offer art therapy, reiki and acupuncture, among other services. "It’s all very individualized. Some patients don’t use any (complementary) techniques and are fine. Some use them, and then their symptoms improve. It’s about improving quality of life."

"Cancer needs to be seen more globally, from a more comprehensive paradigm," says Dr. Rose Kumar, a doctor of internal medicine and founder and CEO of The Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee. "The traditional approach is search and destroy. In the process of destroying the cancer, chemo and radiation ends up impacting the immune system."

Stress and anxiety from the emotional toll cancer takes can further weaken the immune system. "People are in fear and trauma when they’re going through cancer," Kumar says. "It’s really important to help people work through that fear and to really support their emotional body, because the emotional body has a direct effect on the immune system and a person’s well-being."

That’s where complementary modalities can make a positive impact, and both Kumar and Shamah have seen patients benefit specifically from reiki and acupuncture. "Those two seem to have a profound effect on minimizing side effects and maximizing emotional grounding and helping people work with the trauma that’s in their body as they’re going through the cancer process," Kumar says.

"Many patients have found reiki to be relaxing and centering," Shamah adds.

Childs and her acupuncturist figured out that if she had acupuncture the day after a chemotherapy treatment it would help with nausea and fatigue, and she also used it before her surgeries. After her first, a lumpectomy, she experienced a severe reaction to one of the medications and spent 12 hours in the recovery room. Before her next surgery, she spoke with the anesthesiologist, who turned out to also be an acupuncturist. With acupuncture before surgery, Childs had a better experience. "It was a longer surgery, more intense, and I did not have nearly the side effects," she says.

Acupuncture also helped with a side effect that developed toward the end of Childs’ chemotherapy treatments. "My optic nerve was affected by one of the Taxol treatments, and I went temporarily blind for about two months. After we figured out it was a side effect from the chemotherapy, I would go in (for acupuncture) to relieve pressure," she says, adding that she continues to use acupuncture for pain, anxiety and migraines.

Psychological Support

"Another piece to this puzzle is psychotherapy and trauma work, which is extremely helpful, because people need strategies and tools, and they need other people, a team to support them, because it’s a fairly lonely process to go through cancer, and having that team is a huge help," Kumar says.

Childs stopped teaching spin classes during chemotherapy, but her psychologist convinced her to try teaching again to help with her mild depression, common in cancer patients. Her first day back at the fitness club, she put a scarf over her bald head and told her students class would be a bit different. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. "They give to me more than I feel like I give to them," she says. "My therapist helped me see that." Childs continued to teach one class every other Saturday during chemo.

She experienced a similar breakthrough with her physical therapist. "After I had so many surgeries, the pain just continued. To start to move again after them — I could barely lift my arms," she says. "I remember I hit a block. And my therapist said to me, ‘You’re in pain because you’re not doing the work.’ And I was so called out, but I needed that, and then tears just came down my face. She pushed me to that place, so I could begin to heal."

In addition to her professional team, Childs created a support team at home, delegating roles to different people. One of her friends from Florida flew in to cook for Childs and her husband and stockpiled their freezer with meals, and another, her "chemo buddy," drove her to her biweekly appointments.

"Research shows that people who surround themselves with other people and people who say ‘I need’ (and) ‘help me’ do better. The people who are like, ‘I got this; I’m good’ — those are the people who typically don’t do as well," Childs says.

Food as Medicine

On a physical level, Shamah encourages patients to continue to exercise because activity has been shown to reduce the recurrence of cancer. He says that even with less energy, a runner, for example, can get similar benefits by walking. And he refers patients to dietitians within Aurora for nutrition advice. "We should all be eating a well-balanced diet, but it’s even more important for cancer patients," he says.

"We stress healthy eating as an important part of healing and recovery," says Carolyn Lammersfeld, a licensed and registered dietitian and vice president of integrative medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. "We generally recommend a whole-foods, plant-based and Mediterranean-type diet," she says, adding that recommendations vary depending on an individual’s goals, cancer type and treatment plan.

"A lot of the nutritional research has shown that a plant-based diet is extremely effective in helping the immune system do its job better, helping the DNA repair better, and in some studies it’s even been shown to cause cancer regression," Kumar says.

In fact, that’s why Childs switched to a strict vegan diet after her diagnosis.

Now she’s sharing her passion as a Food for Life instructor, leading cooking classes at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, among other locations.

"Food for Life is a program that’s put on by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and we’re part of a network of over 300,000 doctors, clinicians, nurses, researchers, advocates, survivors, community health workers — people who believe that food is medicine," she says. "We are talking about foods that fight cancer. Eating a clean diet that’s plant-based, focused on vegetables, legumes, lots of beans, whole grains."

Her hope is to make cooking fun and easy and to teach children healthy lifestyle patterns that prevent illness, because, like many children of the ’80s, she grew up eating convenient, packaged foods like TV dinners.

Healthy Choices

"One of the things that traditional medicine is not doing is teaching people how to reduce their recurrence risk, and that’s an area (where) integrative medicine is strong," Kumar says. "At The Ommani Center, we speak with patients about what they feel led to this … the way they were eating, their lifestyle and a variety of other factors, a lot of which can be modified. By the time their treatment ends, they have a toolbox and a lot more self-awareness."

"A lot of my patients will say, ‘It’s like the greatest gift this happened, because I know so much more about myself and how to live.’ They see cancer as a catalyst," Kumar says. "So cancer really is an opportunity for transformation and for a lot of self-evaluation, so that we can explore at a deeper level what we need … so that we can live more consciously. All of the courageous people I have helped through cancer have taught me that."

When we met, Childs was gearing up for a final reconstructive surgery after five years, seven previous surgeries and several complications. She too wants people to feel empowered by their choices — as health care consumers and in what they eat.

"Every day you pick up your fork many times — those are choices. I might have chosen a doughnut earlier today, because I’m human. But guess what? The next time I pick up my fork, I choose again and can do better," she says. "I want people to know that they have choices and that they have more power than they think they do." m

New Drugs Can Boost the Immune System

"Our immune system has one sole purpose: to protect against disease. Some cancers, though, can outsmart our immune system, and cancer cells can proliferate despite our bodies’ best efforts," says Carolyn Lammersfeld of Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). Researchers have developed a new class of drugs, called immunotherapies, that either stimulate specific parts of the immune system or counteract cancer cell signals that prevent immune response, she says. Immunotherapies include checkpoint inhibitors, monoclonal antibodies, cancer vaccines and cytokines.

"We still need more research … to figure out what allows (immunotherapy) to work well for some cancer types and not others," says Dr. Eugene Ahn, medical director of clinical research and an oncologist-hematologist at CTCA at Midwestern Regional Medical Center. "We also need more data to tell us at which stage of cancer immunotherapy is most effective." That said, he believes immunotherapy is a promising innovation that may reduce side effects and provide the possibility of long-term remission.



This story ran in the October 2016 issue of: