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Cancer doc: You can't change your genes but you can improve your life

October 20, 2014


DALLAS — Toward the end of September, Dr. Carolyn Matthews went hiking with her husband and close friends. She ate fresh, nutritious food. She relaxed. Cellphone service was blessedly spotty, so she took a reprieve from voice mail and email. She had fun.

The week was, in effect, a microcosm of the simple, straightforward, sensible advice she extends to all her patients — oncology and integrative medicine alike. It’s not meant to take the place of traditional treatment; instead, it goes hand and hand.

"Many years ago," recalls Matthews, a Dallas gynecological oncologist and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas, "I saw a breast-cancer patient who didn’t want to do surgery. She didn’t want to do chemo. I told her it’s like your left brain is totally allopathic; your right is integrative medicine only. But you want to use your whole brain. Put them together."

Matthews performed the surgery and says the woman has done well.

"I don’t think it’s an either-or kind of thing. Integrative medicine is bringing in healthy foundational habits that can support you along your journey. Hopefully you won’t have to do surgery or radiation therapy or chemo. But if you do, having a healthy foundation makes it a little easier for you."

This approach — an intricate swirl of professional training and personal experience; of long-established treatments and the gift of control — has endeared her to patients, garnered colleagues’ respect.

"She brings a much broader set of tools to the table," says Dr. C. Allen Stringer, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. "These are bad diseases we treat, so someone who is well-versed and has a foot in each camp can offer the best of both."

Growing up on a farm in Virginia and rowing for her crew team at Williams College in Massachusetts, Matthews has long championed a healthy lifestyle. But three pivotal events during her professional life sharpened her focus, strengthening the connection between herself and her patients.

The first was learning in 1995, when she was 36 weeks pregnant with her son, Church, that she had thyroid cancer. Hearing the same news she’d broken to countless patients, she says, "You’re in shock. I didn’t fully understand that until I had it myself."

The second was her father’s diagnosis of renal cancer the next year and his death three months later. Only then, she says, did she understand how incredibly wrenching the cancer journey is for families as well as for patients.

Third was linking the seizures Church began having at age 4 to a gluten intolerance that she also was found to have. Not long after she changed the family’s diet, he was able to stop taking the medication.

"It made me realize how powerful diet was compared to the pharmaceuticals he was taking," says Matthews, who earned her doctor of medicine degree at Medical College of Virginia and completed a fellowship in integrative medicine with Dr. Andrew Weil at the University of Arizona.

"That just drove home that what you eat interacts with your genes. You’ll never be able to change your genes. But we can change the environment surrounding them, and that comes from how we move through our daily life, how we nourish ourselves with healthy foods, good thoughts, good sleep, good friends."

The message is far from universally accepted. Matthews gets frustrated that the "frenetic, frazzled" lifestyle so many people live has become so ingrained. "It would be nice to change the culture so it’s accepted to slow down, to nourish ourselves physically with good food and emotionally with deep friendships," she says.

Patients tell her, "I’ve never met a vegetable I like," or consider the one or two they eat in a day (she advocates eight to 10) to be plenty. She goes into hospital rooms of some of her cancer patients — often those whose body mass index is several times what’s healthy — and sees Hot Tamale candies by their bedside, sodas and snack cakes in the fridge.

"You get a sense some people will be receptive, and for others it’s a totally foreign concept," says Matthews. "You do what you can do and move on."

Matthews does acknowledge that there are no "hard and fast, no randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind" studies proving that diet changes the outcome of disease. "There are lots of theoretical reasons to think why it could do that, and the fact we don’t have proof doesn’t mean it doesn’t," she says. "It only means we haven’t proved that."

Not everyone bases outcome on a study.

"Every now and then I get patients with total aha! moments," she says. "They get it. They feel so much better."

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Sue Templeton of Carrollton, Texas, is one of them. She had uterine cancer three years ago and was referred to Matthews by a doctor at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. At every appointment with Matthews, she says, "we’d delve a little deeper into nutrition, into supplements."

Templeton, 57, has all but stopped her daily Diet Coke habit. She drinks green tea instead of coffee. When she eats beef, it’s grass-fed; fish is wild-caught.

"She was so observant. When she shook my hand, I said, ‘I’m sorry, my hands are always cold.’ She said, ‘I wonder if you have adrenal issues.’ Turns out my adrenal function was low."

"One thing she talked about multiple times," Templeton says. " ‘Do you ever just relax?’ and ‘What brings you joy? Do the things that bring you joy.’"

Amy Lewis Hofland of Dallas began seeing Matthews in August 2011, not long after having her cancerous thyroid removed.

"I was having fatigue, not feeling like myself," says Hofland, 42, the executive director of the Crow Collection of Asian Art. "I just felt rotten."

When Matthews told her she, too, was a thyroid cancer survivor, "I immediately felt aligned with someone who had been there. We started talking about whole health, integrative medicine."

She began taking a series of detoxification classes; each began with Matthews — whose undergraduate degree is in English — reading a poem or a piece of prose. Hofland lost 20 pounds. She surpassed Matthews’ standard prescription for walking 30 minutes a day by walking 45, and began taking a photograph of each sunrise she witnessed.

Her experience with Matthews, she says, "gave me the impetus to work really hard at the Crow to build this as a wellness museum. We teach tai chi, yoga."

Hofland also began seeing Matthews for acupuncture — a certification, Matthews says, she doubts all her patients even know about. (She’s also board-certified in hospice and palliative medicine.) She recommends acupuncture to patients for pain or anxiety or nausea. Or "to reduce the stress of the whole journey."

During such sessions, Matthews talks to her patients, melding acupuncture with meditation. Focus, she tells them, on breathing in joy. "Send that joy to every single cell in your body." Focus exhalations, she says, "on letting go of any tension, anxiety, worry, anger, anything you don’t need right now."

She doesn’t regularly meditate; given a choice between that and exercise, her beloved tennis wins out.

"My dream day," Matthews says, "would be able to have meditation in the morning and again in the evening. I think I would be so solid if I did that."

Still, she has inspired Hofland to hold a daily meditation for employees in her Arts District building.

"It’s so intoxicating how much goodness she brings," Hofland says. "I never anticipated that."

Matthews talks a lot about inflammation, about oxidative stress, about chemicals that, as she says, "speak to your genes." But she simplifies her message with these three ways to lead a healthy lifestyle:

Eat a diet of mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, berries, wild fish, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken.

Incorporate daily movement as well as daily deep relaxation.

Enjoy life. "Move your fun meter to seven every day."

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