Whole-Person Healing: Celebrating 20 Years of Integrative Medicine at MSK

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As a new millennium approached in 1999, another beginning was underway: the creation of the Integrative Medicine Service (IMS) at Memorial Sloan Kettering. The IMS was built on the premise that healing from cancer goes beyond standard medical treatments — promoting wellness in mind and spirit can help people feel whole again, too.

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For 20 years, the IMS staff has cared for hundreds of thousands of people with cancer and led studies that have furthered the field of integrative oncology. The program has always been rooted in evidence-based medicine, says IMS Chief Jun Mao. Unlike alternative medicine, which uses unproven methods instead of conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, the IMS works with a person’s primary MSK cancer care team to support them holistically. Specialized integrative medicine doctors consult with patients and create a road map for their therapeutic needs. Services such as fitness training, acupuncture, meditation, yoga, massage, music therapy, and more are tailored to the individual’s symptoms and promote restoration.

The blend of programs at MSK was the brainchild of philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, who was on MSK’s Boards of Overseers and Managers for more than 50 years. “He believed that we have to take care of quality-of-life issues for people affected by cancer,” Dr. Mao says. The first IMS Chief, Barrie Cassileth, established the prototype for the IMS and later founded the Society for Integrative Oncology, a multidisciplinary international society with more than 500 members from over 30 countries.

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“Barrie wanted me to continue to build upon the strong foundation she created and take this program to the next level,” Dr. Mao says. Mr. Rockefeller’s legacy is now being carried forward by his daughter Lucy R. Waletzky, an MSK Board member who continues to support the IMS.

Integrative medicine services at MSK are more accessible than ever. Today, patients can receive acupuncture at all of MSK’s regional locations. Through telemedicine, they can consult with an IMS doctor and take mindfulness classes from home. They can also access an online video library of mind-body programs guided by IMS specialists, including a series of instructional tai chi videos. In 2019, the IMS began offering pediatric integrative medicine consultations through MSK Kids. The IMS continues to lead integrative oncology research. In April 2019, Dr. Mao’s team published findings showing that changes to sleep behavior and acupuncture can offer persistent relief for insomnia.

Dr. Mao envisions an even more robust future, with expanded in-person and digital offerings. MSK’s About Herbs database, an online hub of information on vitamins and supplements, has had roughly seven million visitors from 194 countries over the past 15 years. “We really want to harness the power of technology so that patients have access to MSK’s experts and services at their fingertips,” he says.