What does the term “integrative medicine” mean to you? Even if the concept seems like a mystery, chances are you may already have an appreciation for its modalities. If you’ve ever enjoyed the benefits of practices such as mindful movement, guided relaxation or therapeutic music, you’ve participated in integrative medicine.
More specifically, the field of integrative oncology applies these integrative practices within the cancer context for the benefits they can provide for individuals in or recovering from cancer treatment. Treatment options range from acupuncture or music therapy to yoga therapy or meditation.
The Society for Integrative Oncology defines integrative oncology as “a patient-centered, evidence-informed field of cancer care that utilizes mind and body practices, natural products and/or lifestyle modifications from different traditions alongside conventional cancer treatments. Integrative oncology aims to optimize health, quality of life and clinical outcomes across the cancer care continuum and to empower people to prevent cancer and become active participants before, during and beyond cancer treatment.”
On March 28, Gryt Health hosted its interactive online event “Demystifying Integrative Oncology” to explore this hot topic and help introduce several of these tools to the cancer community.
The session featured a panel of speakers including Dr. Santosh Rao, medical director of Integrative Medicine and Supportive Oncology at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center; Desirée Walker, patient research advocate, motivational speaker and health equity champion; and board-certified music therapists Elizabeth Bullock and Sam Rodgers-Melnick.
Panelists defined the topic and discussed various real-life examples from their own practices and experiences. The event was participatory and included ample time for attendees to learn and practice acupressure individually. The entire group also collaborated on a music therapy practice. The music session involved writing lyrics and performing a song together with Bullock and Rodgers-Melnick.
In defining and discussing examples of integrative practices, the presenters emphasized first and foremost that integrative oncology is not intended to replace conventional treatments selected by an individual’s medical oncology team.
Rather, these integrative methods are used alongside therapies such as chemotherapy, radiation, hormonal therapy and surgery. Pairing integrative practices with an established conventional regimen can provide individuals a sense of agency with their own well-being and offer relief for some of the difficult side effects that accompany conventional treatments.
Speaking on her personal experience with integrative oncology as a two-time breast cancer survivor, event panelist Walker says that it’s important to know that “there is science behind it; it’s evidence-based.”
Walker shares that her first introduction to integrative practices was through acupuncture. Years after her first cancer diagnosis and treatment, Walker’s acupuncturist helped her address chronic treatment-related symptoms. Walker also turned to acupuncture for support through her second diagnosis and treatment.
Since then, Walker says, she has established acupuncture and yoga as ongoing, long-term practices that she prioritizes to support her overall health in survivorship.
Although the benefits of integrative practices are becoming more widely known, geographic and financial accessibility remains a real challenge. Drawing from her insight as a health equity advocate, Walker explains that “there is still a large population that don’t know what integrative oncology is. While we do have evidence for its value, we don’t have policies, and there is limited coverage—if any at all.”
For now, individuals wanting to explore various integrative modalities are faced with the challenges of finding providers; coordinating care and communication between different providers and establishments; and paying for services out of pocket.
Unfortunately, these hurdles hinder access for many in the cancer community who could benefit from the practices, Walker says. Advocacy work in the realm of integrative oncology could help change the landscape and make these treatments more accessible to individuals facing cancer, no matter their location or financial situation.
Lauren Lastauskas, vice president of Community at Gryt Health, says that the topic of integrative practices has drawn a lot of interest from the Gryt patient and survivor community and comes up as a frequent discussion item at Gryt meetups. The aim for this educational program, she explains, is to empower individuals to learn more and seek out such therapies.
As someone with a medical and science background, Lastauskas says that she was drawn to integrative practices after learning that they are evidence-based and intended to accompany rather than replace conventional cancer treatment. She hopes that Gryt’s program will connect the community with new therapies that can improve quality of life and clinical outcomes.
Both Lastauskas and Walker emphasize the importance of individual self-advocacy for anyone experiencing cancer treatment or survivorship and believe that integrative practices can play a major role in addressing challenges that arise during or after an individual’s cancer treatment. They add that it’s crucial to seek information and resources from trusted sources, such as the Society for Integrative Oncology, and to communicate openly with their existing oncology team.