By Laurie L. Herscher, M.D., Director of the Integrative Oncology Program at the Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical CenterAquilino Cancer Center

What is Integrative Medicine, you ask? It is often defined as the combination of the best of Western and Eastern medicine. However, I like to expand the definition to an underlying “philosophy” or comprehensive way of looking at wellness and disease. Put very simply, we are asking: “What does this person need to thrive?” and “What does this person need to get rid of to thrive?”

The answer is different for each of us. For example, one person might need better sleep, more vitamin D or more of a sense of community to thrive. Another person might need to get rid of a particular food to which they react, reduce mold exposure or end a bad relationship.

Integrative medicine looks beyond the acute-care model, in which a patient presents with a problem or symptom and doctors recommend a treatment, usually a drug or procedure. In the integrative model, we investigate the cause of the problem so that the patient can reach a state of wellness, rather than simply control his or her symptoms.

Common contributors of un-wellness include:

Eating healthy

  • The way we eat
  • What we eat
  • When we eat
  • How much we eat
  • How well we sleep
  • How physically active we are
  • How we manage the inevitable stress of modern life

Some susceptibility to less-than-healthy lifestyle habits and environmental exposures is genetic, but there is overwhelming evidence that our genes are not our destiny. Our lifestyles and exposures tell our genes how to express themselves. The tools of the integrative medicine practitioner are, therefore, heavily weighted toward lifestyle interventions.

The majority of healthcare dollars today are spent on chronic diseases, and a majority of these chronic diseases are, in fact, lifestyle-related.  Therefore, it stands to reason that we should address those lifestyle factors that can have such a profound effect on our overall wellness.

The four main categories of integrative care are:

  • Diet/nutrition
  • Physical activity
  • Stress management
  • Sleep

Cancer patients are among the highest users of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or CAM, which was the previous term for integrative medicine. More and more, research supports the notion that the internal environment around tumors plays an important role in their behavior. Addressing diet and other lifestyle factors can impact the internal environment and can provide cancer patients with an important sense of empowerment. Offering positive lifestyle strategies allows patients to participate in their care and provides a sense of empowerment during a life event that is disturbingly disempowering.

Other recommended treatment modalities include:

massage therapy

Future blog posts will discuss specific topics of interest to oncology patients. Stay tuned!

Dr. Laurie L. Herscher, M.D., is a nationally recognized radiation oncologist. She has practiced in the Washington, D.C., area for more than 20 years. She is board certified in Integrative Medicine and completed her fellow training at the prestigious University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine under the guidance of the field’s pioneer, Dr. Andrew Weil.