GRAND RAPIDS — When Deb Bailey was diagnosed with cancer last year, she knew the treatment regimen: weeks of pain and illness as the radiation and chemotherapy run their course. Bailey comes from a family where three of four siblings have been diagnosed with cancer before age 40. She beat the disease a dozen years ago through all the typical means.
Every year, half a million Americans die from a family of diseases that modern science does not fully understand. Western medicine’s best weapons against cancer involve poisoning the body with radiation and toxic chemicals. Sometimes these means are successful at stopping the disease. Other times they are not. Even in the successful cases, the patient goes through intense side effects.
The second time Bailey was diagnosed, she wanted to take a different path to recovery.
Bailey, who is director of corporate communications at Steelcase Inc., studied up on alternative approaches to cancer treatment involving non-Western practices such as Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture. With her ideal regimen in mind, she approached practitioners at the Wege Institute for Health and Learning at Saint Mary’s Health Care.
“I met with them and asked how they saw it working with chemotherapy. They said they had had a number of people who had tried it and it worked with very positive results,” she said. “So I took kind of a three-pronged approach, with traditional chemotherapy, acupuncture and the Chinese herbal supplements. And now, can I say for sure that it helped? Well, during my chemo time I was able to continue to work part-time. I never got violently ill. … After I finished up chemo, I came back to work full-time like two or three weeks after the end of my treatment. And I’m doing very well.”
Bailey was not an adherent of alternative medical practices prior to this experience. She also said that she never considered skipping the standard treatment. But she has seen too many studies that have shown the efficacy of Eastern medicine to discount it.
“There’s just too much data with Chinese medicine that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years. And when you look at people in China and their susceptibility to the kinds of diseases we have, it’s a very different scenario. So I wanted to be a beneficiary of what they seem to know,” she said.
She’s not the only one.
This Thursday and Friday, Saint Mary’s Health Care is hosting an event called The Michigan Symposium for Integrative Oncology. The conference will explore a topic that has been garnering interest across the country in recent years: how health-care organizations can introduce complementary therapies into their cancer treatment programs. On Thursday evening there is a general public forum titled, “How Complementary and Alternative Therapies Can Impact Your Health.” It takes place 5-6:30 p.m. at the Lacks Cancer Center at Saint Mary’s. The cost is $15. Interested persons may register by calling (800) 435-9539.
Speakers at the event include oncologists, radiologists, acupuncturists and administrators. The lectures and panel discussions focus on educating health practitioners about the “application and efficacy of integrative therapies.” Discussion topics include nutrition, movement therapy, and the use of traditional Chinese medicine including acupuncture. The speakers also will consider how these therapies fit into the complex system of private and public insurance, and what effect the inclusion of such complementary medicine may have on a health-care organization’s business.
The increase in health-care providers’ interest in integrative medical practices is not simply a fad or a marketing ploy; it comes in direct response to the desires of the health-care-consuming public. Fully 75 percent of Americans have used some form of alternative medicine, according to a 2004 study from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The report found that a majority of Americans found it beneficial to supplement their standard health care with therapies such as herbal medicine, yoga, massage and prayer.
While all of these types of treatment can be beneficial, they can also be far-flung. For patients with life-threatening cancers, it might not be practical to have weekly appointments with an herbalist, an acupuncturist, an oncologist and a yoga instructor — all in different offices in different parts of town. Some hospitals are now choosing to house many of these services in one facility, such as the Lacks Cancer Center at Saint Mary’s.
That was a plus for Bailey, as was the help she received from her Cancer Resource Specialist — an advocate and guide provided by Saint Mary’s to walk the patient through the integrative care process. During her first fight against cancer, Bailey did not have this kind of support. In fact, after beating the disease, she went on to found Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, a nonprofit organization that provides social and emotional support to people suffering from cancer.
Studies have shown the effectiveness of this kind of support. Patients feel better and recover more quickly when they have a “field guide” for their medical care, but also someone to help with the “softer” practical and emotional challenges that fall outside of traditional medical care.
“It’s the hard side — you know: facts, figures, insurance benefits — and the soft side, too. You know: How is that going to make you feel? And what else might you be able to do,” Bailey said. Discussing these things that were not directly health-related was just as important to her as talking about dosages and recovery times.
“It’s the other issues that you need to address so that you can adequately heal. If you have all these other stressors going on in your life, that’s going to affect your ability to heal,” she said.
The Michigan Symposium for Integrative Oncology will highlight how Saint Mary’s has been successful in cases such as Bailey’s. A schedule, along with registration and cost information, can be found at www.smhealthcare.org.