There are two things that Rebecca Knight is most grateful for in her life: the cat bite she sustained four years ago, and the calming therapies that have brought her “a sense of total well-being” following a battle with cancer.
When Knight’s cat bit her in early 2005, she sought treatment that led to a series of tests and one shocking diagnosis—stage 3 colon cancer. “If it weren’t for that cat I would be dead right now,” says the former technical editor. After surgery and chemotherapy treatments, she is free from cancer but still lives with fatigue from an adrenal tumor, stiffness and chronic physical pain from a hand injury, and the emotional exhaustion of having just fought the battle of her life along with obesity.
Knight, 61 and a resident of Manville, regularly visits the Steeplechase Cancer Center at Somerset Medical Center for Reiki, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and recently Healing Touch, therapies that are meant to use the body’s energy to promote relaxation and healing. “Reiki makes me feel so happy and relaxed,” says Knight. “It’s a very warming feeling; sometimes I see colors or I see myself in water.”
Reiki, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and Healing Touch are three of the integrative, or complementary, therapies offered at many of New Jersey’s top hospitals. Others include meditation, acupuncture, yoga, qigong, and therapeutic massage. While most are offered to cancer patients, use of these therapies is becoming more common in areas such as cardiology, maternity, and physical rehabilitation.
“We’ve seen the benefits firsthand,” says Katrina L. Losa, director of the Steeplechase Cancer Center and a registered nurse. “It allows the patient to temporarily forget about what’s going on in their body.”
In the past, many of these therapies were referred to collectively as complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. These days, the language has changed to reflect the medical community’s new attitude.
“Alternative implies therapies that are experimental or perhaps risky. Rather, we use the terms complementary or integrative, meaning anything that enhances traditional treatments,” says Bonnie Mehr, manager of the Dr. Diane Barton Complementary Medicine Program at the Cooper Cancer Institute at Voorhees.
“The therapies we offer are designed to lessen the pain, stress, and anxiety, and help with handling the side effects of the treatment,” Mehr says. She also thinks the therapies can serve as preventive medicine. “If you think of the level of anxiety that the average American is dealing with right now, incorporating these modalities into our lives can only help.”
For patients like Morristown resident Roberta Schum, 57, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a little more than a year ago, integrative therapies including Jin Shin Jyutsu, Reiki, acupressure, and meditation have been “a godsend.”
“Along with chemotherapy,” Schum says, “these therapies have helped me live healthfully, and they have sustained me.”
Reiki is commonly described as “universal life energy.” In theory, the Reiki practitioner is a conduit, passing energy to the patient. Barely touching the patient’s body, the practitioner’s hands move the energy, which then is supposed to promote relaxation, balance, and healing. In Jin Shin Jyutsu, the practitioner applies pressure along 26 energy pathways in the body with the goals of promoting relaxation and restoring balance.
Dr. Adam Perlman, founding medical director of the Carol and Morton Siegler Center for Integrative Medicine at St. Barnabas Ambulatory Care Center in Livingston, says these integrative therapies address issues of mind, body, and spirit in medicine and take into consideration the entire patient—including his or her emotions.
The traditional medical model, says Perlman, treats an individual’s ailments by focusing on discrete parts of the body. “So we had a gastroenterologist treating the stomach, and a neurologist dealing with the nervous system, and so on. And what we found is that each of the systems of the body interact with one another. It’s somewhat artificial to separate them,” he says.
“What we’re also dealing with now are people living longer and oftentimes with chronic conditions,” Perlman continues. “With integrative therapies, we can help manage those diseases. By taking a more integrative approach, we can help improve the quality of life even if we can’t cure the disease.”
The integrative approach includes transforming the environment of the hospital or treatment center from one that is purely clinical to one that is more conducive to healing.
“When people come into a hospital, they feel like they’ve lost control. They have to take off their clothes, wear hospital gowns, eat institutional food,” says Dr. Louis Evan Teichholz, chief of the division of cardiology at Hackensack University Medical Center and medical director of its Complementary Medicine Program. “Our goal is to create an inviting environment and give patients some control over their experience, to decrease the level of anxiety,” he explains.
“Our lobby looks like the Ritz Carlton, and patients are also able to order from a menu that has been created by our chef, who is the former chef from the Hotel Pierre,” Teichholz says. “There are fountains, waterfalls, and gardens gracing the property, and the hospital gowns have been designed by Nicole Miller.”
Does all of this really work? “Anything that has a calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system can have a very positive impact on an individual’s ability to heal and stay healthy,” says Teichholz. “If you practice relaxation techniques you can lower your blood pressure, and this is going to have a positive effect on the entire system.”
The positive effects, proponents say, have been proven. For example, “studies have shown that women who practice yoga experience less symptoms of depression when they are going through radiation treatment than women not practicing yoga,” says Dr. Robert A. Somer, associate director of the Breast Cancer Program at Cooper Cancer Institute. And while medical schools have not typically taught yoga, meditation, and massage, “more modern physicians are seeking out this kind of training,” Somer says.
The New Jersey hospitals that offer integrative and complementary therapies do so for free or for a nominal fee. At Steeplechase Cancer Center, yoga is $5 per class. When there are charges for therapies such as acupuncture, insurance companies typically cover treatments that are administered or prescribed by a medical doctor. The state’s largest insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, has a program called Choose Healthy, which provides a 25 percent discount on certain therapies through a network of contracted chiropractors, acupuncturists, registered dieticians, and massage therapists.
One of the oldest programs in the state is the Atlantic Integrative Medicine Program, which began as a stress-reduction center sixteen years ago and has since developed programs in integrative oncology, cardiac integrative medicine, and integrative pediatrics at Morristown Memorial Hospital and Overlook Hospital in Summit.
Dr. Nancy Cotter, medical director of Atlantic Integrative Medicine, says that even the most skeptical patients have found relief in the integrative therapies.
One such skeptic was Joseph Stanley, 53, a civil engineer from Morristown. Stanley was suffering from chronic headaches after back surgery. Unable to work, he was taking painkillers and was even given an epidural injection to manage pain in his lower body. Nothing worked.
Stanley’s sister, an oncology nurse, urged him to try acupuncture. “It was as if someone just flipped a switch,” says Stanley of the results. “In one moment I was in the most excruciating pain, and when the acupuncture needle was inserted, the pain was gone.” After seven years, he remains relatively pain free.
Teresa Kao, 60, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy and has been participating in integrative medicine therapies at the Dr. Diane Barton Complementary Medicine Program at Cooper Cancer Institute for four years. During her illness she experienced three close deaths, those of her mother, father, and brother.
The program has been a lifeline. “Without this program I probably would have just wallowed in my grief and fear.”
Rebecca Knight says the treatments she’s receiving through Steeplechase Cancer Center have helped her in ways she could not have imagined. She has recently moved into a new apartment. The cat that saved her life died several months ago, but she is looking forward to adopting a kitten.
“I’m a survivor. I’m a survivor,” Knight says, repeating it as if it is a meditation mantra.
MaryLynn Schiavi is writer, associate producer, host, and narrator of the 2009 Mid-Atlantic Emmy-winning program Matter and Beyond on the Somerset-based Ebru Television Network. She lives in Long Valley.