Osher Center marries Eastern medicine with Western
San Francisco Chronicle March 7, 2011 04:00 AM Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistMonday, March 7, 2011
Julianne Ward, a 42-year-old mother of two young children, was diagnosed a year ago with Stage IV breast cancer.
For the cancer, she has had 18 rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and 30 lymph nodes removed, and she is now undergoing 25 sessions of radiation.
For her body and mind, she is getting acupuncture, Chinese herbs and a diet rich in cancer-fighting foods. She also practices visualization.
“My feeling is that Western medicine treats the disease, and Eastern medicine treats the whole body and whole person,” said Ward. “When you are diagnosed with cancer, that doesn’t mean it’s what you are. You have the rest of your body and future, and you need to be strong and sustain yourself.”
Ward, who lives in Napa, travels to San Francisco for treatment. Her oncologist, trained in modern medicine and complementary approaches, works at the University of California’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. The Osher clinic, opened in 2002 and housed in a handful of cramped locations, opened in January in a gleaming new $37 million building with five floors and 48,000 square feet dedicated to research, education and clinical care.
The Osher Center, part of the Mount Zion campus on Divisadero Street and named after philanthropist Bernard Osher, offers physicians trained in integrative medicine, as well as specialists in traditional Chinese medicine, biofeedback, guided imagery, therapeutic massage and ayurveda consultation. There are a range of public programs and lectures, including how to prepare for surgery and how to be mindful in childbirth and parenting. Some of the group classes include tai chi, laughter yoga and meditation.
“There are 46 integrative medicine programs at major academic health centers around the country and we are the best,” said Margaret Chesney, the center’s director who formerly worked as a deputy director for complementary and alternative medicine at the National Institutes of Health.
Chesney, whose fifth-floor office looks out onto the center’s Japanese healing garden, open to patients and their families, added, “Integrative does not mean alternative. Rather, it’s medicine that is integrated together with a focus on prevention, health maintenance, early intervention and patient-centered care.”
Kevin Barrows, a family physician who heads the center’s clinical programs, said, “We choose programs that are evidence-based. When we decide to offer a therapy or hire a practitioner, our highest criteria is if there is evidence for that therapy. Do we know through Western science that it will work?”
As the science advances, insurance coverage will follow, said Barrows, noting that some plans have begun to pay for acupuncture.
The center’s current research projects range from studying how breathing and meditation lower blood pressure to the impact of teaching pregnant women to meditate as a way to reduce preterm delivery and reduce postpartum depression. Elizabeth Blackburn, the UCSF biologist who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize, is an investigator on two of the center’s largest studies, on mindful meditation for patients who are obese and for patients with HIV.
“What we are trying to do here is really to transform medicine,” Barrows said.
Patient rooms, situated off the reception area on the fifth floor, have soft lighting, hardwood floors, wooden dressers and walls painted in hues of sage and sand and adorned with framed flower prints. Rooms for classes open to patients and the public are also on the fifth floor.
About a dozen people, ages 50 and up, gathered recently in a carpeted room for tai chi class.
Leon Lord, who is 70 and lives in San Francisco, said he needed something to balance the running he does.
“I come here just for classes,” Lord said. “I pay out of pocket. It’s preventative for me, all in my quest to stay healthy and stay alive.”
Alex Schott, 60, has been doing tai chi for four years for general health and because “there are so many positions to learn and know. I hope it will strengthen my memory.”
New to the class was Trish Douglas, who is 39 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in July.
“I’m trying out different classes here,” said Douglas, who wore a head scarf, having just shaved her long hair. “I’m doing chemotherapy across the street, but I’m here for peace of mind. My attitude is, why not do the regular medicine which will kill the cancer, and do alternative things which will help me to heal my body?”
Alex Pamasik, 38, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in January. He quickly met with a surgeon and a radiation specialist. When he met with his oncologist, Donald Abrams, head of integrative oncology at the Osher Center, Abrams asked questions about his life, his family, his work and his spirituality.
‘Treating the garden’
“The other doctors are looking at treating the weed,” Pamasik said. “Dr. Abrams is about treating the garden.”
Abrams, an oncologist for 30 years who completed a two-year fellowship at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, sat in his office sipping green tea.
“I focus on things including nutrition,” he said. “I co-manage my patients with a traditional Chinese medicine person. I’m big into medicinal mushrooms. I talk with patients about supplements. So often, cancer is about losing control. It’s given to the person doing your chemo, and your radiation. My job is to re-empower my patients, to give them things they can control.”
Abrams added, “You know how I end all of my appointments with patients? I ask them: ‘So what brings you joy? What are your hopes? Where does your strength come from?’ Then we come up with a recipe to continue to obtain that joy.”