Published on October 16, 2015

Comforts for cancer patients, to ease the journeyComforts for cancer patients, to ease the journey

Meadow Hilley was 41 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last October. In the 11 months since, she has gone through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, while caring for her two young daughters.

She had never used any alternative or complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, until a friend—musician Sarah Swain—introduced her to the Cape Wellness Collaborative.

Founded by Swain, the collaborative is trying to make alternative and complementary therapies available to all local cancer patients by connecting them with practitioners and subsidizing the cost.

“I was never someone to go in for alternative therapies or get a massage or go to the gym,” says Hilley, who works as an editor and also is an artist specializing in belt buckles. “I had really started devoting myself to better fitness just five months before my diagnosis.”

Despite several months of chemo and five weeks of radiation, Hilley fit in some acupuncture and meditation sessions with the help of the collaborative.

“I felt better when I walked out of the room,” she says about acupuncture. “With the infusions…, you’re following a protocol.

“But with the alternative therapies, you’re making a conscious choice for wellness. You’re taking back the initiative and prerogative and I think there’s something really healing in that in itself.”

About two-thirds of people diagnosed with cancer try alternative therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, meditation or herbal supplements, a 2007 survey by the National Institutes for Health found. Patients in the survey said they turned to non-traditional practitioners for pain management, immune enhancement and general wellness.

But alternative therapies are rarely covered by insurance and may overtax the pocketbooks of cancer patients already dealing with out-of-pocket expenses for traditional treatments.

Get your ‘wellness card’

Here’s how the collaborative works:

A cancer patient applies for services through the collaborative’s website, talks to a a representative and files the necessary paperwork (including verification that the person is, indeed, a cancer patient).

The collaborative then gives the patient a $500 “wellness card” that can be used at any of the participating practitioners. In turn, practitioners have agreed to discount prices for collaborative patients.

For now, the collaborative is offering acupuncture, Reiki, energy healing and massage, nutritional counseling and chiropractic services.

“Western medicine treats the disease; we want to be on a journey with the person,” says Alicia Mathewson, a member of the collaborative’s board of directors who is a relaxation coach, musician and owner of Sounding Still Wellness in Barnstable Village.

The vision for the collaborative came from Swain after her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It has become the fundraising focus for her annual Cape Cod Women’s Music Festival. The collaborative has attracted not only therapy providers like Mathewson but also Lisa Shook, an oncology nurse at Cape Cod Hospital who is now a board member.

The goal is to attract not only the people who know about alternative medicine but also those willing to try, says Shook. She sees no line between what some might consider the “traditional” nursing she does with hospital patients and these complementary therapies.

“We’ve always helped people relax with deep breathing and exercise,” she says. “There are a lot of nurses in the community, such as home-health care nurses, and some of them are very in tune to opening up patients to [complementary] treatment.”

Mathewson comes from a family steeped in traditional medicine: Her father was a well-known local pediatrician. Her mother lived with cancer for nine years and became a Reiki master. Mathewson now leads clients in the Rising Star energy healing system and mindfulness, used for deep relaxation.

“I always like to talk about the science … It’s about bringing your nervous system and your breath into a relaxed state,” she says, noting that so much of health care is now about managing patient anxiety.

And there is evidence that treatments such as acupuncture, yoga, mindfulness training, hypnosis, and massage can help with cancer treatment symptoms such as nausea and anxiety, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, one of the National Institutes of Health. The center studies a broad range of therapies, ranging from acupuncture to the use of herbal supplements.

But some segments of the population, including low-income patients, are less likely to use alternative therapies because they don’t know about them. The collaborative wants to change that.

“So the mission of the Cape Cod Wellness Collaborative is to both educate everybody about it … and then also to provide resources for people who don’t have them,” says Mathewson.

The collaborative’s work with cancer patients includes people still undergoing traditional treatment, those who have finished and those in palliative care, says Shook.

Survivors, in fact, may be surprised at their continued wish to be connected with a caregiver, she says.

“People under treatment have close contact with [medical caretakers]. Then you set them free into what’s supposed to be a happy time and they’re like, whoa, what just happened?” she says.

“We’re really looking at quality-of-life issues for cancer patients. What can the community do for them?”

Photo courtesy of The Cape Wellness Collaborative.