Integrative approaches to managing cancer pain improve quality of life throughout the journey with cancer
The term “palliative care” was long synonymous with end-of-life care, when curative treatments were no longer available and the best that doctors could offer a patient was relief of pain and other symptoms. But today the term means much more. That’s because there’s a new view that holds that regardless of where cancer patients are in their treatment, and no matter what their prognosis, they deserve to be as comfortable as possible throughout the entire experience.
At The Cancer Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center, such supportive care includes integrative health approaches. “Research has shown that by incorporating nonmedical therapies into a patient’s care, the use of pain-relieving medications may decrease,” explains Tanveer Mir, MD, assistant professor of medicine and director of Supportive Oncology and Outpatient Palliative Care, who leads the Supportive Oncology Program. “Patients experience less anxiety and feel more supported during their care.”
Members of The Cancer Institute’s Integrative Health Program work as part of the NYU Clinical Cancer Center team to provide complementary approaches to relieving pain and discomfort. Patients are encouraged to call or stop by the Integrative Health offices on the fourth floor of the Clinical Cancer Center to learn more about how they may best benefit from the program’s services.
“We collaborate with doctors to help patients manage their symptoms and achieve a better quality of life,” says Eva Pendleton, LMT, a licensed massage therapist who became the manager of the Integrative Health Program in July. “The goal of integrative approaches is to facilitate healing and restore natural balance in the body.”
Pain during cancer treatment can stem from a variety of sources. It may be caused by the cancer itself, which can trigger bone or nerve pain; by cancer surgery; or as a side effect of other treatments. For example, radiation therapy to the head and neck can induce skin and mouth ulcers, while certain chemotherapy drugs (such as paclitaxel or oxaliplatin) are associated with nerve pain and discomfort. Every patient’s experience with cancer-related pain or discomfort is unique, so The Cancer Institute’s integrative health specialists tailor pain-management approaches to the patient’s specific needs.
Acupuncture and massage therapy are the two integrative health approaches most commonly used at The Cancer Institute to relieve pain. Acupuncture employs very fine-gauge needles gently inserted into strategic points in the body. It has been shown to reduce cancer-related and surgical pain, as well as help relieve nausea, dry mouth, and other side effects of cancer treatment.
It was once thought that cancer patients should avoid massage therapy, given the sensitivity of tumor sites and other vulnerable areas. But this approach is now recognized for its ability to decrease stress and reduce pain. Massage therapists trained to treat people with cancer know to avoid tumor sites, surgical incisions, chemotherapy ports, and areas where radiation therapy is being applied, and to be gentle enough to avoid bruising in patients with low platelet counts.
Research has shown that some people with cancer experience pain relief during massage. (Russell NC et al. J Altern Complement Med. 2008;14:209-14.) One study found that a 30-minute massage or simple-touch session relieved pain and improved mood. (Kutner JS et al. Ann Intern Med. 2008;149:369-79.) By potentially reducing the need for pain medications, massage therapy may also help some patients avoid the side effects of narcotics.
Acupuncture and massage therapy are performed on a fee-for-service basis, by appointment, in the Integrative Health Program’s dedicated rooms. “These rooms are quiet and peaceful, set aside in the corner with no phones,” notes Dr. Mir. “Patients deserve this type of care.” Treatments can be focused on a specific problem area, such as the hands and feet, or can address the whole body to promote comfort and relaxation.
In addition, patients undergoing chemotherapy and other infusion therapies at the Clinical Cancer Center are offered 15-minute seated relaxation sessions during their treatment, involving gentle massage of the shoulders, hands, or feet. Thanks to philanthropic support, this much-appreciated service is offered free of charge.
“Our Integrative Health Program demonstrates the commitment of The Cancer Institute to provide care that goes beyond treating the cancer itself,” concludes William L. Carroll, MD, director of The Cancer Institute, the Julie and Edward J. Minskoff Professor of Pediatrics, and professor of pathology. “Our goal is to build strong teams who work together to provide the best symptom management and to ensure that our patients are as comfortable as possible throughout their experience with cancer.”
To learn more about the Integrative Health Program at the NYU Clinical Cancer Center or to make an appointment, call 212.731.5806. Information about specific services is also available at cancer.med.nyu.edu/integrative-health .