By Matt Hickman

As cancer treatments and results have improved, so too has medicine’s emphasis on treating the whole patient — mind, body and soul.

At Katmai Oncology, located in the cancer wing of the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, that evolved vision has built out into a virtual day spa in a space adjacent to the rooms where patients receive radiation and chemotherapy.

In the space, the calming sounds of water trickling over smooth stones set the tone for a soothing environment for Katmai patients receiving massage and acupuncture meant to ease the negative side effects of the recovery process.

Oncologist Dr. Ellen Chirichella moved up to Alaska from the Seattle area eight years ago. Inspired by the role she was able to play, then as a medical student, when her father underwent head-and-neck cancer treatment, she leapt at the chance to help design the Katmai day spa, once it was greenlighted.

“It’s important to have a separate space,” she said. “For a patient in the survivorship phase, the cancer is never really over… This is provided as a result of their cancer diagnosis, but they’re not here as a patient, per se. It’s feeding a different part of the person in the spirit of taking care of the whole patient. This side is really addressing more of the psycho-spiritual health.”

Dr. Chirichella said acupuncture tends to be the most popular service and the one with the most identifiable benefits.

“There certainly is clinical data that shows there is improvement in pain and stress and nausea and other side effects of cancer and cancer treatment that this can help improve,” she said. “Especially there is data in acupuncture.”

Chirichella said the services, which include nutrition and counseling, are quite popular among patients. The biggest challenge to delivering the services is getting insurance companies to pay for it.

“The biggest hurdles these days are financial. Many insurance companies don’t cover it; some do, but the tide is changing. One benefit we have of being at our offices is that we can have staff dig and see if we can’t get it coded properly to see if they have that benefit,” she said.

Chirichella said that across the country, oncology is beginning to see the benefits of combining what be called ‘alternative medicine’ to traditional cures; that the perspective is no longer East vs. West, but integrated care.

“Patients are hungry for it; people want holistic therapy, meaning integrated therapy. Yes, there’s the western medicine side, but there’s more to the person than just their physiological being — there’s the psycho-spiritual, too,” Chirichella said. “Also, this is a way of dealing with side effects that isn’t pills. Patients don’t want more pills. Everything has a side effect and this enables them to take a little control, manage their side effects in another way. It really empowers them.”

Chirichella said that sometimes patients actively undergoing chemotherapy are reluctant to get a massage or acupuncture, but those moving on to the recovery stage find it most valuable.

“In that post-treatment period, where they still have some side effects, it’s most helpful in that phase,” she said. “Pain, nausea and neuropathy or numbness and tingling that can be caused be chemotherapy, it’s most helpful and we don’t have great drugs for that.”

In her eight years in Alaska, Chirichella has seen treatment options for Alaskan patients grow tremendously, to where in most cases now patients often only need to travel to Seattle for second opinions and the like. That, she says, is also kind of ‘integrated care.’

“By far the best cancer care, quality care can be given here in Alaska,” she said. “What’s good for the patient, good for the spirit is being close to home with familiar surroundings and a support network is just so important. It’s not just about radiation and tumor-shrinking; it’s about the whole patient, being able to stay close to home. You can’t measure the benefit that has to somebody.”

Chirichella believes the increasing acceptance of Eastern methods has helped patients shed the stigma of what in years past might have been thought of as backward or flighty, and be more open with their providers.

“I felt like this was sort of the next echelon in providing the best care possible for cancer patients and across the U.S. this has now become standard, I think,” she said. “I like the term ‘integrated medicine.’ It’s not ‘alternative’ medicine — we can do both; we can take different approaches. It’s OK if patients want to try some Eastern medicine — or ‘complementary medicine’ is a nice term… When they felt like they had to choose they were afraid to tell their physicians and it created a divide. Now that we’re supporting it, patients can be more open, even with their symptoms to try this avenue and know we’re not judging them.”

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