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The Medical Minute: The best cancer care treats body, mind and spirit

A cancer diagnosis can bring normal life to a halt as a rigorous treatment schedule takes center stage, often leaving the crucial aspect of emotional and spiritual wellness unchecked.

“Addressing the patient’s mind and spirit cannot be ignored as we treat the patient’s cancer,” said Dr. Kevin Rakszawski, oncologist at Penn State Cancer Institute. “A person’s emotional and spiritual well-being often drives their physical well-being, particularly while on cancer therapy.”

Oncologists are understandably focused on what they do best, using state-of-the-art therapies to aggressively treat the cancer wreaking havoc in the patient, and patients are focused on getting the best care for the best chance of survival. Thinking beyond that to the patient’s overall well-being takes intentionality, Rakszawski said.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions from both oncologists and patients regarding overall well-being,” Rakszawski said. “Often, oncologists might be hesitant to ask the hard questions. The same goes for patients – they often see the exam room or the clinic as a place to address the physical only, and therefore might not bring up concerns about their own emotions.”

Introducing whole-person care

That’s where places like the Cancer Assistance and Resource Education (CARE) Center at Penn State Health Cancer Institute play a crucial role.

“We’re not taking care of cancer – we’re taking care of people who happen to have cancer,” said Dr. Michael Hayes, founding program director of the CARE Center. “Oncologists realize the importance of whole-person care, but they are so incredibly pressed that they often focus narrowly on their specialty. The CARE Center bridges that divide.”

Open to newly-diagnosed cancer patients and those who have been battling the disease for years, the CARE Center offers many supportive services, including nutrition, mindfulness, qigong, individual therapy, support groups and an exercise physiologist who works with patients on individualized strength-building plans.

There’s also a writing group, an annual couple’s retreat and, for those who need it, a host of resources to combat barriers to care, such as transportation, family or work issues and financial challenges.

“Evidence tells us that it’s not only the bio-medical treatment, it’s also attention to the psychosocial, emotional and spiritual aspects that are a key part of treatment,” Hayes said. “Patients live longer and do better when all these pieces are in place.”

Recognizing that, cancer centers nationwide are increasingly offering integrative services; however, dedicated facilities like the CARE Center are most often found at National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers.

“The CARE Center provides personalized medicine in the same way that a patient’s individual treatment regimen is considered personalized medicine,” Rakszawski said. “It’s a welcoming environment and provides a sense of calmness, reflection, introspection – sort of the opposite of the more sterile clinic room or hospital ward.”

The power of the mind

State of mind and emotions impact health through the mind-body connection, he said. By purposefully addressing stress, coping, anxiety, grief, loss and spirituality, patients will be in a better position to handle the physical challenges that accompany cancer.

Therapists can offer patients a skillset of concrete tools they can use to better cope with the roller-coaster effect of living from scan to scan and test result to test result. Wellness, patients are taught, is a sense of well-being in the absence or presence of disease – a revolutionary thought for many of them.

Often family members and friends struggle with how best to support their loved ones, Hayes said.

“The ‘C’ word can be taboo or something we tiptoe around, but sometimes we have to crack a few eggs and just open the door to say ‘I’m here whenever you wish to talk to me.’ It’s an invitation, not a forcing,” he said. “Fear promotes silence that can increase suffering for the impacted person and their friends or family.”

The CARE Center and places like it can revolutionize the delivery of cancer care, Rakszawski said. “Just as we emphasize accessibility to the medical aspects of cancer care, accessibility to the CARE Center and its model of whole-person care can make a huge difference for a patient, as well as their loved ones,” he said.

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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