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From Yoga to Reiki, How Integrative Programs Can Help Cancer Patients in Their Treatment

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When a health system considers how to best treat its patients, it leaves no stone unturned. Health systems and medical facilities want to provide the best treatment to every patient who passes through their doors, and that means generating solutions to tailor care toward each patient.

For those undergoing cancer treatment, this approach is magnified. Coming in for treatments every day and being in a hospital environment for weeks at a time is something that only those going through the same experience can understand. It’s why the hospitals treating these patients work so diligently to make their experience as pleasant as possible amidst trying and stressful circumstances.

“As a cancer patient, you have a whole team of physicians working on your behalf to get the best treatment,” says Fern Nibauer-Cohen, Senior Director of Patient Engagement within the Department of Radiation Oncology at Penn Medicine. “Creating a holistic and integrative experience can establish balance and help give patients energy during their treatment.”

Throughout Penn Medicine’s radiation oncology department, that means providing integrative services to supplement clinical patient care — art and music therapy and yoga and reiki, to name a few. The goal is to foster community, work to minimize cancer’s side effects and improve patients’ well-being.

“Integrative services can help take patients’ minds off what they’re going through and reframe their thoughts,” Nibauer-Cohen says. “We want to appeal to patients’ humanity — we’re paying attention to their quality of life while ensuring that they receive the most precise and advanced treatment possible.”

Integrative Programs Innovation

At Penn Medicine, the Roberts Proton Therapy Center — the largest such center in the world combining proton with conventional radiation therapy — is in its 13th year of providing integrative services. Led by Nibauer-Cohen, these programs are designed to supplement all the health system has to offer and innovate wherever possible to improve patient well-being.

“We study patient anxiety and stress and have found that integrative programs have often completely turned these levels around,” Nibauer-Cohen says. “Learning stress management practices has helped patients manage their cancer treatment and diagnosis in their day-to-day lives.”

Among Penn Medicine’s integrative programs, by far the most popular is yoga, led by long-time instructor Tali Ben-Josef. The program has grown a lot in its 10 years in existence — Nibauer-Cohen and Ben-Josef can recall a time when they had to scramble for hospital space for classes. But now, Ben-Josef’s classes are so popular that patients who have completed treatment still come back for more.

“We’ve found that even if patients come to a class very tired, they come out with way more energy,” Ben-Josef says. “The ultimate goal is to help reduce stress not just for patients but for families and caregivers.”

Practicing Mindfulness

One of the core tenets of yoga is mindfulness — the idea that taking care of yourself is both physical and mental. For cancer patients, going through treatment is a grueling and trying time, and developing strategies for stress management can create a bright spot during their treatment and beyond.

The department has noticed a similar effect in its creative classes such as art therapy as well as its reiki energy therapy teachings designed to give patients a boost. Plus, the department also has certified pet therapy dogs in its waiting rooms to utilize the healing power of connecting with an animal.

“It can be stressful knowing you have to go back every six months,” Ben-Josef says. “For our patients, it’s a new way of living. They have to learn how to calm themselves and adjust to a change in lifestyle.”

And because cancer patients are staying within a treatment center for months at a time, they encounter others living through the same experiences. Initiating mindfulness activities like yoga creates methods for patients to come together to further foster community.

“You don’t have to be going through the same exact treatment as someone else,” Nibauer-Cohen says. “I’ve seen patients being treated for all different types of cancers receive a great benefit from connecting with each other. Building a sense of community can be a great stress reliever on its own.”

Patients are also encouraged to talk with each other within the forum of a radiation oncology patient alumni group to connect with others who are facing treatment, undergoing treatment or have completed their care.

“Having a forum throughout treatment to bond and engage with others in meaningful ways can make a big difference in how patients and their caregivers feel,” Nibauer-Cohen says. “It’s our priority to provide the best possible patient experience every step along the way by offering programs that support the healing process.”

To learn more about Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, head here.