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Barrie Cassileth, an integrative medicine pioneer

Barrie Cassileth, an integrative medicine pioneer

ABSTRACT: A career devoted to improvingcancer patients’ quality of life

Barrie Cassileth, PhDWhen you remodel an old bank building, you may wind up with your office in a vault, as did two staff members at the Bendheim Integrative Medicine Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s outpatient facility for complementary services and therapies.

Yet despite its beginnings as a bank, the Bendheim Center, located on Manhattan’s bustling Upper East Side, is a calm and welcoming place for cancer patients to explore the body-mind-spirit connection and receive non-invasive therapies to control difficult syptoms.

“We spent a huge amount of time with architects, interior designers, and decorators to create a spa-like atmosphere for our patients. The atmosphere is actually part of the wide menu of complementary treatments, all designed to help improve patients’ quality of life as they undergo treatment for their cancer,” said Director Barrie R. Cassileth, PhD.

Dr. Cassileth, who is chief of MSKCC’s Integrative Medicine Service and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Chair in Integrative Medicine, invited Oncology News International to the Bendheim Center to discuss her pioneering work for more than 30 years in the field of integrative medicine. While there are always skeptics who will dismiss integrative medicine as “touchy-feely,” there is nothing New Agey about Dr. Cassileth.

“She runs a tight ship,” her assistant said as he led this writer to her office (not one of those in the vault).

The ‘whole patient’ of Pownal

Dr. Cassileth was born in Philadelphia, which she described as a wonderful place to grow up, full of opportunities and rich in art and history. “After graduating from high school, I went to Bennington College in Vermont. It was a cauldron of intellectual freedom. My years there molded what I later became,” Dr. Cassileth said.

While at Bennington, she borrowed an old truck from the school and spent a year in the small backwater town of Pownal. “It hadn’t changed much in more than a century,” Dr. Cassileth said. Full of the Bennington spirit—which requires students to direct the course of their own education—she established herself in the close-knit, cloistered community of Pownal, teaching art and music in the town’s one-room schoolhouse.

It wasn’t long before the engaging teacher became friendly with the parents of two of her students who lived across from the school.

“Unfortunately, the young mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer; her condition was terminal. I helped in her care, doing whatever small things I could. When she died, the overall experience had a profound affect on me,” said Dr. Cassileth, who would go on to become one of oncology’s most ardent advocates for treating the “whole” patient.

Work with leukemia patients

After Bennington, Dr. Cassileth moved to New York for graduate work at Albert Einstein University. However, she was interrupted mid-dissertation when her husband was called into military service; they lived a peripatetic life for several years.

Ultimately, she returned home to Philadelphia, where she earned her doctorate in medical sociology from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).

“I did my dissertation at the UPenn Comprehensive Cancer Center’s inpatient unit for leukemia patients. We did a poor job managing adult leukemia,” she said.

Nonetheless, her intimate interaction with terminal cancer patients was very meaningful—she wrote several journal papers based on her experience as well as her first book, The Cancer Patient: Social and Medical Aspects of Care (Lea & Febiger, 1979). “More important, a foundation of learning and knowledge was firmly set while I was there,” she said.


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