September 29, 2022

Chemotherapy is considered an effective treatment because it fights fast-growing cells, which include cancer cells. But fast-growing cells occur in other parts of the body, too – hair, the gastrointestinal tract, blood cells, and other areas of the body – can also be affected by chemotherapy. This can result in unpleasant side effects for many.
In going through treatment many patients don’t have the energy to get out of bed; some lose their appetite; for others, water begins to taste like metal. Symptoms vary from person-to-person, but side effects have the potential to weaken patients at an already-difficult time when they need strength to get through treatments.
Cue the Integrative Oncology team. As part of Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute’s Department of Supportive Oncology, this specialized group of caretakers have established a reputation as one of the best kept secrets for cancer patients going through treatment.
For people dealing with side effects related to chemotherapy, this team can make a world of difference to a patient’s quality of life with treatments and at-home remedies that don’t look much like medicine at all.
“Patients come to us and one of the things they walk away with is a sense of empowerment. They may come in feeling like so much is out of their control, but we say, ‘Here are some things that are within your control that you can do,’” says Susan Yaguda, nurse manager for Integrative Oncology. “To see the looks on their faces when they realize they can do something and feel pretty good afterwards? That’s so rewarding for us.”
The best time for cancer patients to visit Integrative Oncology is before treatment even begins. The patient and providers discuss variables that may contribute to potential side effects: the type of cancer, the type of chemotherapy drug, any other health concerns or conditions. Then, Integrative Oncology experts share the resources that may alleviate those side effects, which may be anything from oncology massage to yoga to acupuncture.
Integrative medicine is patient-centered and evidence-based treatment that becomes part of a patient’s holistic care plan.
“We use mind/body techniques, lifestyle, acupuncture, massage, supplements, exercise, healing, touch, yoga – all of these great modalities to help patients,” says Dr. Chasse Bailey-Dorton, chief of Integrative Oncology at Levine Cancer Institute. “With integrative medicine, the oncologists know what we do, and we know what they do. We try to optimize quality of life and empower our patients.”
Levine Cancer Institute has one of the biggest Integrative Oncology divisions in the country. It offers patients the support of specialists at the hospital and guides them to at-home solutions, too, for relief of common side effects including:
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Sometimes, side effects increase as chemotherapy treatments continue. Some patients who feel no side effects after rounds one and two of chemotherapy may begin to feel them after rounds three and four. Knowing what resources are available and how to access them allows patients to get the help they need, when they need it.
Caregivers also have access to many of Integrative Oncology’s services. They can join yoga classes, work with the music therapist, and talk with a dietitian for food recommendations, too.
“We need to make sure that caregivers’ needs are also being addressed.” Yaguda says. “We see this feeling of such relief on their faces when they realize that it’s OK for them to go do something that is just for themselves. We want to empower them to do that.”
Some patients hesitate to tell doctors if they experience side effects from chemotherapy. Some may feel that being a “good patient” means not complaining; others may fear that this may mean a doctor will take them off of their treatments entirely; some people even feel that they need to “toughen up” and get through it. But this is important information for a doctor to have to give patients the help they need. The team at Integrative Oncology wants to understand how a patient really feels, with no sugar-coating or forced positivity. Honesty precedes healing.
“Some patients have heard again and again ‘Oh, you just need to be positive. You just need to be happy,’” says Bailey-Dorton. “No, you don’t. You need to be authentic. It’s okay to be angry, scared. You don’t want to get stuck in that place, but you’ve got to be authentic with your emotions going through this.”
Experiencing side effects isn’t a sign of weakness. Bailey-Dorton says that she hasn’t met a patient receiving chemotherapy yet who hasn’t experienced fatigue or trouble sleeping at some point during their treatment. While these conditions may be common with chemotherapy, they can be helped, and there’s an entire team at Levine Cancer Institute ready to offer support.
“It’s always important to tell patients that no matter the outcome, we want to make them stronger for having been through this, realizing what’s important in life, what’s not important in life, how to become stronger psychologically through this,” Bailey-Dorton says. “We won’t cure, but we can heal.”
Learn more about Integrative Oncology at Levine Cancer Institute’s Supportive Oncology Clinic.
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