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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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.
patients have found reiki to be relaxing and centering," Shamah
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
"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
In fact, that’s
why Childs switched to a strict vegan diet after her diagnosis.
sharing her passion as a Food for Life instructor, leading cooking
classes at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, among
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.
"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.
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
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.
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.