Barrie Cassileth, pioneer in integrative cancer care, dies at 83

Dr. Cassileth was the founder and longtime head of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and championed what is often referred to as a “comprehensive” approach to medical care beginning in the 1970s. .

Integrative medicine practitioners, Dr. Cassileth emphasized, do not seek to replace traditional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery with “alternative” medicine.

“There is no viable alternative to traditional cancer care,” she told USA Today in 2013. “We work very hard to deter patients who want to go that route because they will die .”

Rather, the goal of integrative medicine is to supplement traditional treatment with practices such as massage, acupuncture, and herbal medicine that have been shown to relieve pain, reduce stress, or improve quality of life.

Dr Cassileth has shunned diets and other so-called “natural remedies” that claim to cleanse the body of toxins – diets she described as “reminiscent of religious cleansing rituals” – and denounced as “grotesquely outrageous” the practice of encouraging patients to adopt unscientific alternatives. to more rigorously tested treatments for their disease.

The reality remains, however, that many conditions cannot be fully cured by conventional medicine and that many treatments, no matter how effective, often come with distressing side effects. It was there, in those spaces that conventional medicine could not reach, that it argued that practices such as meditation, guided imagery, self-hypnosis and music therapy, as well as acupuncture and massage , could make a significant difference.

Particularly for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy, “the now international and research-based flourishing of integrative oncology helps [them] and their families live well, physically and emotionally, during and beyond the fight against cancer,” she told a publication of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2017.

Dr Cassileth did not dispute the existence of what is often called the mind-body connection, which is proposed to explain, for example, how relaxation techniques could relieve pain and thus reduce the amount of painkillers that a patient should take.

She, however, cautioned patients and practitioners alike to attribute more to the mind-body connection than could be scientifically substantiated. In particular, she resisted the idea that the attitude patients adopt towards their disease, whether optimistic or pessimistic, had a measurable impact on its outcome.

For every cancer patient who maintains a positive attitude and survives, Dr Cassileth said, she could set an example for 200 other people who did the same and died.

“If a patient believes they are dying because they are unable to change a negative mental attitude,” she told the New York Times in 1989, when such an argument was applied to patients with AIDS, “belief can cruelly burden the patient with unwarranted feelings of guilt”.

Barrie Joyce Rabinowitz was born in Philadelphia on April 22, 1938. Her parents owned and operated a custom kitchen store.

Dr. Cassileth studied social science at Bennington College in Vermont, where she spent a year in the town of Pownal teaching art and music in a one-room schoolhouse. The mother of two of his students was suffering from terminal cancer.

“I helped with his care, doing all the little things I could,” Dr Cassileth told the Oncology News publication in an interview. “When she died, the overall experience had a profound effect on me.”

Dr. Cassileth graduated from Bennington in 1959 and pursued graduate studies that eventually took her to the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a doctorate in medical sociology in 1978.

Early in her career, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, where she initiated a palliative care program and undertook research into complementary and alternative treatments in cancer therapy.

“Research has shown that cancer patients themselves use a wide range of therapies, some ineffective and potentially harmful, others very helpful,” Dr Cassileth told Oncology News.

She continued her research and work at the University of North Carolina, Duke University and Harvard University before Memorial Sloan Kettering recruited her in 1999. She retired from the cancer center in 2016 .

Dr. Cassileth’s marriages to Peter Cassileth and H. Taylor Vaden ended in divorce. Her husband Richard Cooper, a hematologist and oncologist, died in 2016 after eight years of marriage.

Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Jodi Cassileth Greenspan of New York and Wendy Cassileth and Gregory Cassileth, both of Los Angeles; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren.

Dr. Cassileth has been the editor of books including “The Cancer Patient: Social and Medical Aspects of Care” (1979) and the author of the volumes “The Alternative Medicine Handbook” (1998) and “The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care “. (2011).

Among other appointments, she was founding president of the Society for Integrative Oncology and director of the National Cancer Institute‘s first physician training program in integrative oncology.

“It’s always been clear that patients and their family members need more than just great surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and all the new treatments,” said Dr Cassileth. “Premium cancer care, including the complementary modalities now accessible, is a vastly updated new world.”

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