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Mind-Body Connection

Explore complementary medicine

Complementary, integrative medicine offers healing

Evan Foster and his father
Evan Foster and his father, Al.

The first thing you see when you open the door to Evan Foster's bedroom is Bugs and Goofy. Perched on a simple black shelf, the frame can barely contain the drawing of Bugs Bunny. The rabbit is gunning forward on a motorcycle, ears flapping through holes punched in his helmet.

On the shelf below, Goofy is grinning, his eyes squeezed tight, his hands together, maybe mid-clap or maybe in prayer.

This is the work of Evan Foster, a 10-year-old Flint boy who has rhabdosarcoma, a type of cancer that affects muscles in his head.

Evan had always been an athletic kid. He was too busy riding bikes or running or jumping or climbing to sit in one place for long. But after he began treatment for his cancer, he was too tired, so he started to draw instead.

"That was when we all realized he had something special," his father, Al Foster said. "When I first saw his drawings, I thought, 'That's pretty good,' and he just keeps getting better and better."

View the video to learn more about art therapy, or visit the Art Therapy Program webpage

The Fosters are one of many families who have discovered that healing therapy goes beyond what's available in the infusion area or the operating room. The conventional treatment plan developed by a health-care team is the first line of attack in fighting cancer. But for many, complementary therapies serve as reinforcements.

Sorting out the options
As Americans have started to take more control of their medical care, they've been presented with more and more options. Studies have shown that people with cancer, in particular, are much more likely to try complementary or alternative medicine. But figuring what's best for you is tricky.

Broadly speaking, complementary therapies are services that patients can use in conjunction with a conventional treatment plan. It may include art therapy-as in the Fosters' case- music therapy, guided imagery, yoga or any of a number of other practices that help to promote a mind-body connection.

"We're interested in providing outlets for people to be inspired, to heal gently, to seek adjuncts to their regime to foster a sense of well-being," said Donna Murphy, director of Complementary Therapies at the U-M Cancer Center. "Patients and caregivers tell us they come away from our programs with a sense of feeling uplifted in some way. The interactions help to provide them with hope in light of not knowing what their diagnosis could mean for them now and in the future."

the Foster Family
Art is a family affair for the Fosters- mostly, at least. Alphonso, far left in the photo above, prefers fishing to drawing. But twins Evan and Savannah have inherited the same passion for art as their father, Al.

Learn how you can try complementary therapies for yourself.

For those seeking a more comprehensive approach, integrative medicine blends conventional medicine with complementary therapy as well as alternative or traditional medicine. At the University of Michigan Integrative Family Medicine Clinic, physicians consult with patients to develop individualized plans to help maximize their health. These plans may incorporate supplements or traditional therapies, such as acupuncture.

The clinic is designed to help patients sort out beneficial therapies from those that may be harmful, said Sara L. Warber, M.D., co-director of U-M integrative medicine. Because supplements can interfere with cancer treatment, it's extremely important to pursue these options with a doctor's supervision.

The Integrative Family Medicine Clinic is not part of the Cancer Center, but the clinic accesses the same U-M medical records and consults with oncologists to ensure patients receive the best care possible. In addition to consultations specific to cancer care, clinic doctors also serve as primary care physicians, offering a similar blending of therapies to promote health and wellness.

"Many forms of complementary therapy offer true benefit and they don't interfere with conventional medicine, so it's a win-win situation," Warber said. "I think there's also a psychological empowerment that happens because these are things patients themselves decide to do. They think, 'I'm going to seek out something that's good for me,' and when they find a doctor who's willing to be an ally in that process, that's a powerful relationship."

Learning from Children
"I taught her to draw," said Evan Foster, tilting his head toward his twin, Savannah.

"He taught me to draw; I taught him to color," Savannah answered.

For the Fosters, art is a family affair. Al Foster paints portraits for a living, but he didn't see his children's artistic talent bloom until after Evan's diagnosis. Both Savannah and Evan have taken to drawing, while older son Alphonso has taken up his dad's other passion: fishing.

The goal of complementary therapy is often to grease the wheels of self-expression to help people cope with the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis. Most adults have the capability to talk about it, but often choose to bottle it up. Young children sometimes don't have that option at all, said Jessica Doletzky, a member of the Cancer Center Child Life Team.

For kids, complementary therapies are integral. Specialists guide children to use their imagination to cope with painful procedures and offer arts and crafts projects as a way to help them express feelings they might not have the words for. Siblings also are encouraged to participate in these activities to help them deal with the strain cancer puts on a family.

"Our goal is to use activities, games and projects to limit anxiety and reduce stress," Doletzky said. "We try to support families so they have the ability to get through painful or difficult situations a little more easily."

Creating a record
Tammy King always liked to write, but after she was diagnosed with sinus cancer seven years ago, she stopped writing in her journal for a while. After five surgeries and a life- threatening brain infection, she wants to go back and document her illness.

"I want to get that story out," King said. "My vision is someday I can go to the Gilda's Club support group I attend and say, 'Hi, my name is Tammy,' and hand them a notebook and say, 'Here's my story if you're ever bored. I've had quite a journey.'"

King also said she would like someday to share her story with her daughter, who was 15 months old when King was diagnosed with cancer.

Complementary therapies offer people a way to commemorate their experience, Murphy said. This is important for survivors and also for families of those who die.

"These therapies are forms of expression and can create a tangible way to capture some of this intense and life-altering time," Murphy said. "Being ill is not something we think of commemorating, yet illness can often change the course of our lives. Some of these activities can create touchstones for later."

Learning to use complementary therapy to create a better sense of well-being can have lifelong impact, she said. Although the challenge right now is fighting cancer, these techniques can be used to reduce stress from other sources. The key is making that mind-body connection.

"Seeing the person as a whole is an essential tenet of integrative medicine," Warber said. "Our patients have a mind, they have a body, they have emotions, they have spiritual needs that must be valued. We do the best medicine when we attend to all those missions. Healing the whole person is every bit as important as knowing scientifically that we're treating the disease."

Try it yourself

The U-M Cancer Center offers a number of complementary therapy programs at no charge to patients and families. No experience is required. Call 734-615-4012 to learn more or make an appointment. Services include:

Art Therapy
A certified art therapist guides patients through projects ranging from painting to jewelry making. Patient projects are on display in the Voices Gallery, on Level B-1 of the Cancer Center.

Guided Imagery
A facilitator teaches participants to use their imagination along with breathing exercises to reach a state of deep relaxation, emotional calm and sense of control.

Music Therapy
A certified music therapist teaches participants how to use music to reduce stress and foster relaxation.

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Thrive Issue: 
Summer, 2008