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The merger of conventional medical treatment with integrative medicine

Many cancer patients have two doctors like she has — a medical oncologist and a naturopathic oncologist. Some medical schools are adding more programs to their curriculum. (Depositphotos)

Tracy Gosson was first diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in April 2019 after feeling tired and not like herself for months. During her treatment, the founder of the branding and marketing company Sagesse began researching integrated treatment options.

She watched Dr. William Li’s TED talk “Can We Eat To Starve Cancer?” and read his book “Eat To Beat Disease.” His work focuses on how food can play a role in helping the body to heal itself against diseases like cancer and dementia.

“From my research and his book, I came up with a list of super-cancer fighting foods and hired a personal chef, Laurie Searfoss, to prepare weekly meals during treatment,” she said. “I had an excellent response to chemotherapy and surgery with less side effects and quicker healing than most – of which I totally attribute to nutrition and positive outlook.”

A member of many social media groups discussing cancer, she has noticed that many have two doctors like she has — a medical oncologist and a naturopathic oncologist. “They know about each other,” Gosson said. “They work together but he focuses on what drugs can help me and she focuses on what behaviors can help me.”

She and Searfoss participated in cancer patient advisory discussions at the University of Maryland School of Medicine about developing food training for doctors and patients. “This is really an important and emerging area of medicine,” she said.

In 2019, UMD’s Center for Integrative Medicine became one of the first medical schools in the country to include culinary medicine in its core curriculum for medical students. The center’s director of research, Chris D’Adamo, notes that many know nutrition is a foundational part of health. Poor nutrition is a large risk factor for chronic diseases. However, traditionally, when medical students are being trained, they don’t receive much instruction on the importance of nutrition.

“A lot of times you will hear, ‘Talk to your doctor about your diet’,” he said. “They mean well and I think physicians will be able to know you shouldn’t eat (fast food) three times a day. Some of these basic things but the finer elements like how can nutrition impact IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or how might nutrition be contributing to my cardiovascular disease or diabetes? Really, they don’t get much training in that.”

UMD’s culinary medicine curriculum focuses on an experiential approach that is practically oriented. Students look at different types of diets such as Mediterranean, Paleo, Keto and plant-based to better understand the science behind them. After studying, they get to cook at the Institute for Integrative Health through a partnership and eat the meals. D’Adamo notes the curriculum not only will benefit patients but also the doctors themselves as many incorporate what they learn into their own lives.

Dating back to 1991, UMD’s Center for Integrative Medicine was the first of its kind in the country pairing conventional therapies like medications and surgery with complementary elements of care such as nutrition, mind-body techniques, acupuncture and yoga.

Some of the greatest influences on chronic diseases include poor stress management and diet, lack of sleep and activities as well as exposure to environmental toxicants. These factors can be even more influential than genetics, he said. Staff work to provide options to patients, including nutrition, movement, stress management, and environmental exposure mitigation.

D’Adamo said the complementary approach can contribute to prevention efforts against chronic diseases like obesity-related and autoimmunity disorders and cardiovascular disease.

The approach can also fill in gaps with treatment for pain, gastrointestinal and emotional disorders and cancer. “It is basically used to help manage side effects from conventional treatments and sometimes even reduce medication usage,” he said.

The center offers a variety of different integrative methods to treat a wide range of conditions such as acupuncture to combat pain and reduce nausea from cancer treatments, probiotics targeting gastrointestinal problems and yoga to aide lower back pain.

“I think it is important to know that integrated medicine includes both conventional therapies and these complementary therapies,” D’Adamo said. “It is not a replacement for but rather an integration with (therapies).”

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.