Integrative Medicine Classes Help Breast Cancer Survivors Recover

Yoga, Qi Gong and Other Forms of Healing Complement Standard Care at UCSF’s Osher Center

Breast cancer survivor Helen Robillard closes her eyes as she gently rotates her arms clockwise. Her movements are measured and deliberate; her breathing slow and purposeful.

She studies qigong (pronounced “chee-gung”), an ancient Chinese practice of aligning breath, movement and awareness for healing and exercise, including through this class at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

“It’s a very relaxing class, so you really learn to slow down,” Robillard says during a break. “It allows me to focus on my movements, where my hands are, where my feet are and it’s stress reduction.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2009, Robillard added qigong and other integrative medicine classes at Osher to the standard recovery regimen after several rounds of chemotherapy sapped her strength.

“I’m building little muscles in my legs that help in my balance,” she says. “I can close my eyes at points and be off somewhere else. I can focus and be aware of my movements. It adds to my awareness of how I can relax when I’m stressed.”

Margaret Chesney, PhD, and Donald Abrams, MD

Margaret Chesney, PhD, director of the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, left, and Donald Abrams, MD, a UCSF oncologist, review a report on the state of integrative medicine in America.

That focus and relaxation are key aspects of integrative medicine.

“This kind of program allows you to exercise in a comfortable, soft, not strenuous way, and will allow almost anybody to participate,” said Joseph Acquah, OMD, a licensed acupuncturist at the Osher Center. “It’s very soft; it’s gentle. It’s calming. You get to use your mind and body at the same time and there’s a focus which is always good for health.”

Emergence of Integrative Medicine

The term “integrative medicine” didn’t exactly roll off people’s tongues when UCSF established the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in 1997. UCSF Chancellor Emeritus Haile Debas, MD, then dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, with support from the Bernard Osher Foundation created a center that would test the effectiveness of complementary medicine through research, as well incorporate the best of these strategies into professional education and patient care.

“Integrative medicine combines conventional medicine with evidence-based practices from other healing traditions, including meditation, acupuncture and optimal nutrition,” said Margaret Chesney, PhD, director of the Osher Center. “Integrative medicine practitioners work in partnership with patients to encourage personalized care plans and lifestyle changes to promote health.”

Wendy Adelson leads a yoga class at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medici

Wendy Adelson leads a yoga class at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine combines conventional medicine with evidence-based practices from other healing traditions, including meditation, yoga, tai chi and qigong. This approach has become a popular way for cancer survivors and others who are recovering from debilitating illnesses to regain strength and balance after chemotherapy and surgery. Others benefit from stress-reduction programs like laughter yoga. See slideshow

Donald Abrams, MD, a UCSF oncologist, has been providing integrative medicine consultation to people living with cancer at the Osher Center since 2004.

“Integrative medicine can reduce significant burden on our health care system,” he said. “And perhaps if we focus more on integrative interventions, prevention and wellness, we may be able to fix our health care system.”

Integrative medicine takes a “patient-centered” approach, meaning health care providers personalize care based on the patient’s physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences. Their goal is to integrate many different approaches to treatment and prevention, increasing the options available to medical professionals — and to patients.

“At the Osher Center, integrative oncologists work with the UCSF cancer center oncologists and the cancer patient to design an integrative approach that will combine the best state-of-the-art cancer care with complementary approaches such as acupuncture for comprehensive patient-centered care,” Chesney said.

Joseph Acquah, OMD, teaches qigong to a group of patients

Joseph Acquah, OMD, teaches qigong to a group of patients at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

Patients at the Osher Center say the approach is working.

“There’s a lot of trauma associated with cancer and it was important for me to find a place where I felt supported,” said Diane McCarney, another qigong participant who is both diabetic and a breast cancer survivor. “I found in a very short amount of time, just going to those gentle, easy classes, I was able to get much stronger and quicker, and I started to feel better once I started moving again.”

“People need to start thinking differently about health and this is the way to do it,” added Robillard. “It’s hard to put on your gym clothes and go to a class. But once you do it, it’s energizing and the support you get from other people is great. You know you’re not alone. It energizes me and makes me feel normal again rather than like a sick person. I would definitely recommend it.”

As patients catch on, Abrams is hopeful integrative medicine becomes a key component in treating cancer patients.  

“I hope people become aware that integrative medicine is here to stay,” Abrams said. “It’s shown to be successful in treating some of the more difficult conditions that are plaguing people.”