After receiving her PhD, Dr. Cassileth stayed on at the UPenn cancer center as an assistant professor, teaching medical sociology. Both she and the center’s director knew that they wanted her to continue her work at the cancer center, but the direction she would take was uncharted territory.
“At first, neither of us really had any idea of what I would do,” Dr. Cassileth recalled. “I ended up initiating what I think was the first palliative care program in the academic setting in the U.S.”
Specifically, Dr. Cassileth pooled the University’s collective resources, including a large number of graduate students, and created cutting edge programs, known collectively as Psychosocial Programs.
One of her highlight projects was the first national survey of cancer patients’ use of complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies.
“The research showed that cancer patients were using a wide array of therapies on their own, some ineffective and potentially harmful, others very helpful,” she said.
She also led studies of the clinical effects of these therapies.
“I started a substantial research program that would later become an invaluable part of my career path,” she said.
“We had years of very productive research in which we developed prototypic clinical and research programs in patient and family support, medical education, home care and hospice, and the complementary therapies that now comprise integrative medicine.”
Building a program at MSKCC
After leaving UPenn, Dr. Cassileth continued her work in integrative medicine at the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and Harvard University, and continued writing on the subject, including The Alternative Medicine Handbook (W.W. Norton, 1998).
Then, in 1999, Paul Marks, MD, then president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, recruited Dr. Cassileth to develop a program in integrative medicine at MSKCC. “I started out in one tiny office at Sloan-Kettering and today there are 60 people in my department and we occupy a 4-story building.”
Dr. Cassileth credits Laurance S. Rockefeller, the philanthropist and long-time supporter of MSKCC, for convincing the Sloan-Kettering leadership that an integrative medicine program was needed at MSKCC.
“Mr. Rockefeller emphasized that we could no longer take care of only the physical aspects of cancer; we needed to focus on the broader needs of the patient—body-mind-spirit, which he would talk about as all one word.”
The program Dr. Cassileth built at MSKCC over the next decade now offers individual therapies in many areas, including various types of massage; mind-body therapies such as meditation, guided imagery, and self-hypnosis; creative therapies involving music and sound; acupuncture; nutrition counseling; fitness classes; education programs for patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals; and evidence-based information on herbs, botanicals, and other products.
Dr. Cassileth has continued to emphasize research, and she and her colleagues in the Integrative Medicine department serve as principal investigators for a number of ongoing trials at MSKCC, including studies of acupuncture and massage therapy.
She has further promoted research of complementary therapies as founding president of the International Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO) and as a founding member of the advisory council to the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine, now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
For Dr. Cassileth, integrative medicine reflects the new era of oncology, one in which our excellent and growing survival rates permit attention to survivor needs. Physical and emotional sequelae of treatment now are important emphases.
Complementary modalities can control many symptoms and enhance quality of life with safe, non-invasive, non-toxic interventions in which patients themselves can play an active role.