MONTREAL — Traditional Chinese medicine and other non-conventional therapies will have an equal footing with western treatment as care options at the new Peter Brojde Lung Cancer Centre at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH).
This clinical and research centre, which officially opened April 18, is being described as the first in a Canadian hospital and one of only a few in North America to fully integrate what are sometimes referred to as complementary or alternative therapies into oncology treatment.
At the Brojde centre, located on the Segal Cancer Centre’s 10th floor, acupuncture, massage, meditation and such Asian practices as tai chi and qi gong, as well as nutritional counselling, may be incorporated alongside chemotherapy, for example.
Only therapies for which scientific evidence exists of their potential to improve the health or well-being of cancer patients, both physically and psychologically, will be used.
They may be prescribed at any point in the patient’s journey, from diagnosis through treatment and afterward, including at the palliative stage.
For the time being, the use of Chinese herbal remedies will be limited to patients with advanced lung cancer who aren’t receiving conventional treatment in randomized, clinical trials, said Mary Grossman, co-director of the Brojde centre with Dr. Jason Agulnik.
Grossman, who holds a PhD in nursing, spent time last year in China learning how doctors blend eastern and their culture’s medicine, which, she notes, has been developed over 2,000 years.
To say the medical profession is resistant to even considering Chinese and other non-conventional therapies would be an understatement.
“As recently as three years ago, I would say there was 100 per cent resistance,” she said.
“But now there is a movement toward the introduction of complementary – we don’t say alternative – therapies. Integrative oncology is becoming a trend in the United States, including at such major centres as the Sloan-Kettering and M.D. Anderson, as well as a few places in Canada.”
The JGH centre has been established with a major donation by the family of the late Peter Brojde, a pioneer in computer software in Canada, who died of lung cancer in 2005 at age 60.
His wife, Anna, said that when his cancer was no longer treatable by doctors, he tried Chinese medicine. It may not have extended his life but it did make his final months more tolerable.
The Brojde Centre’s approach is to tailor treatment and care to the individual or “the whole person,” Grossman said, with the goal of optimizing quality of life.
The centre’s staff includes the usual health-care professionals, who work alongside a holistic nurse, a massage therapist, a nutritionist and a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, who is also a physiotherapist.
They work as a team, co-ordinating the patient’s care over time.
Grossman and Agulnik are careful not to make claims that any of these therapies can halt or reverse lung cancer, one of the cancers with the bleakest prospects for cure, but they’re confident they make many people feel better.
There is evidence that they may boost immunity and proof that they can reduce anxiety, pain, fatigue, nausea and coughing, Grossman said, which also helps patients cope with chemotherapy or other conventional treatment.
And there is growing evidence, she added, that a calm mind is associated with lower levels of inflammation in the body, which is connected to a host of ills.
The nutritionist’s role at the Brojde centre begins at the outset, Grossman said, and not, as is often the case, when the patient starts to lose weight.
“After ‘do no harm’, our objective is to treat and try to cure disease, but as important as that is optimizing the wellness of the patient, improving their quality of life. This is an idea that is taking root in the profession today,” Grossman said.
She taught a course this year to fourth-year medical students at McGill University on this approach.
Grossman reminds skeptics that most western drugs are derived from plants. The herbs and other botanicals used in China often are species that have not been available in this part of the world.
All herbs to be tested at the Brojde Centre have been vetted by Health Canada, she said.
The Brojde Centre is also the new permanent home of the JGH’s pulmonary oncology department.
“The Brojde Centre is innovative and quite unique, because it was purpose-built to create an exceptional environment for merging both western medicine with other complementary medicines,” said Dr. Agulnik.
“The JGH is certainly not the only hospital to offer both types of medicine, but it is one of the very few in North America and is unique in Canada to do so in a completely integrated manner.”
Resistance within the profession is not the only reason integrative oncology has not spread more quickly. Complementary therapies aren’t covered by medicare.
But thanks to the Brojde family’s gift the cost is being covered for now, Grossman said.
Anna Brojde hopes the centre will become a model for the treatment of other types of cancer, or even other diseases.
“I hope that someday cancers that are now terminal will become chronic diseases, and with people living longer there will be a need for a different type of care, one that is personalized and holistic.”
She understands the wariness in the medical community. After all, her husband, president and chief executive officer of Eicon Technologies Corp., was a scientist himself, but he experienced the benefit of complementary care.
“We don’t have to necessarily talk about a cure,” she said. “We can take the best from everywhere. That’s what integrated medicine means to me.”