How Integrative Oncology supports cancer treatment

November 11, 2022

Research has increasingly demonstrated that integrative medicine can help alleviate cancer symptoms and the side effects of cancer treatment. Studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) have shown promising results with integrative therapies such as massage, qi gong, tai chi and yoga.

At Allina Health Cancer Institute (AHCI), we’re committed to leading-edge patient care that supports the whole person — body, mind and spirit — during and after cancer treatment. As part of that commitment, we offer an integrative oncology program to help patients maintain the best possible quality of life throughout their treatment.

What Is Integrative Oncology?

Although people often use the terms “complementary,” “alternative” and “integrative” medicine interchangeably, they have different meanings:

  • Complementary medicine describes nonmainstream therapies that are used with conventional medicine.
  • Alternative medicine is nonmainstream practices and therapies used in place of conventional medicine.
  • Integrative medicine is health care that incorporates all appropriate therapeutic approaches — conventional and nonmainstream — to optimize healthy living and healing.

Integrative oncology (IO) is a specialized form of integrative medicine in which patients receive complementary nonmainstream therapies alongside standard cancer treatments. Our whole-person approach to care supports any patient who has received a cancer diagnosis or is at a high risk of developing cancer.

Integrative Oncology care at Allina Health Cancer Institute

The Penny George® Institute for Health and Healing at Allina Health is a national leader in integrative medicine and offers specialized IO care and services. We’re the only program in the metro that offers IO, and the program is designed specifically for cancer patients.

The IO program is integrated within AHCI, and the IO providers are located with the other cancer care providers. This approach supports collaboration among the entire team on patient treatment plans to provide cohesive, coordinated care.

AHCI’s philosophy on whole-person care is to provide comprehensive, easy-to-access, person-centered care. We meet each individual wherever they are in their cancer journey, offering care that puts patients at the center of the experience.

IO care and services are available for patients and their families, loved ones and caregivers. Patients and their families can begin receiving IO care as soon as they receive a cancer diagnosis, and they can continue as long as they like, even after cancer treatment is complete.

Integrative medicine tailored to the needs of cancer patients

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IO involves complementary medicine modalities and lifestyle modification techniques, such as nutrition counseling, exercise, natural products, mindfulness and other mind-body practices. Working alongside our colleagues in clinical oncology, not replacing them, our IO providers empower patients to become active participants in their own health and well-being.

Patients begin by scheduling an initial consultation with a member of our IO team, either by provider or self-referral. In the consultation, we meet with patients to understand their concerns, cancer diagnosis and other health needs, lifestyle, personal preferences and financial abilities. Taking these factors into account, we design a personalized care plan that fits each patient’s life.

All of our IO services and therapies are based on the latest scientific evidence, with results backed by studies and other data. Among the integrative oncology services we offer are:

  • Aromatherapy
  • Exercise physiology, including yoga
  • Health and wellness coaching
  • Inpatient massage therapy
  • Medical cannabis to manage nausea, vomiting and chronic pain in eligible patients
  • Meditation modalities including mindfulness-based stress reduction and guided imagery
  • Nutrition counseling
  • Supplement recommendations

We also offer traditional Chinese medicine therapies, such as:

  • Acupuncture and acupressure
  • Herbal medicine
  • Mind-body techniques such as tai chi and qi gong
  • Reflexology

Benefits of Integrative Oncology

Even minor lifestyle modifications are producing positive effects in our patients, and current data supports the results we’ve seen. We have found that using IO modalities to modify patients’ habits improves not only their quality of life, but also their cancer treatment outcomes.

For example, optimizing patients’ gut health through dietary changes to incorporate more fiber, probiotics and prebiotics helps lessen the intensity of the side effects of chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Incorporating small bouts of activity, such as a 15-minute walk twice a day for a total of 30 minutes, helps manage fatigue during radiation therapy.

Our initial consult is typically covered by patients’ health insurance, but we recommend that patients confirm what IO services their particular plan covers. If their plan doesn’t cover some services, we offer competitive fees and payment plans to help patients pay for IO.

When should you refer your patient for Integrative Oncology?

Providers should consider an integrative oncology referral for patients who:

  • Want more holistic care for mind-body healing
  • Have questions about dietary supplements taken along with or during cancer treatment
  • Want therapeutic activities other than talk therapy to improve their quality of life, such as stress reduction, meditation, self-affirmations and spirituality
  • Need care to manage physical and/or psychological difficulties that arise after completing cancer treatment, such as long-term treatment side effects, mental health symptoms or sexual dysfunction

If you have a patient who is interested in alternative medicine, we can counsel them on how integrative medicine may be a better option. We explain that there is very little data about the safety or effectiveness of alternative medicine for cancer treatment and provide recommendations for IO therapies that do have scientific backing.

Integrative Oncology: our location

Patients can access integrative oncology at AHCI Minneapolis for in-person visits, therapies and services. We also offer virtual visits for consultations and many services that don’t require an in-person visit.

Partner with Allina Health Cancer Institute: how to refer your patients

We welcome referrals from health care providers across the Twin Cities, western Wisconsin and beyond. Here’s how you can refer a patient to AHCI for cancer care:

Providers within Allina Health can place a consult order within Epic for an ambulatory appointment to integrative oncology.

Providers from outside Allina Health can refer patients by calling our program’s main number: 612-863-3150.

If you are a provider that already knows which location you would like to refer a patient, you can call the specific cancer center: