Palliative care program implements complementary therapies

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When we hear the words cancer treatment, most of us think of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Not pet visiting or music therapy. But these and many other non-traditional therapies are being implemented at world-leading cancer research centre, Princess Margaret Hospital.

The hospital’s palliative care program implements complementary care therapies that help treat cancer’s emotional and social side effects. Issues common to palliative care- patients’ loss of control and fear of the future- can have a negative effect on a patient’s outlook as patients come to terms with the end of their life.

Judith Filman, corporate palliative manager and manager of the hospital’s inpatient palliative care unit is exploring five different complementary care projects: pet, art, music, massage and recreational therapy. “Holistic therapies are important; you can’t just treat the body, you need to nourish the whole person: mind, soul and spirit,” she explains.

Pet therapy is a simple yet effective way to promote a patient’s well-being and reduce stress. Every Wednesday afternoon at Princess Margaret, beloved Koko, a Weimaraner, visits palliative care unit patients, offering her companionship and affection.

Another popular therapy, Art therapy is the use of art materials and techniques like painting and sculpting for self-expression and reflection in the presence of a trained art therapisat. This highly individualized, personal journey promotes well-being by enabling patients to explore their feelings about their illness. This program is also available to hospital staff as a means of preventing burnout and relieving stress.

The therapeutic benefits of music are also well noted. According to the Canadian Association for Music Therapy, music’s nonverbal, creative and emotional qualities can facilitate a therapeutic relationship between patient and caretaker. Discussion of selected lyrics or rhythms that represent a patient’s experience promotes wellness and improves communication. Certain techniques including song-writing, improvisation and song selection mirror patient thought-processes and solidify feelings about their illness. While music therapy is available in the atrium each Wednesday, the palliative care program at Princess Margaret Hospital hopes to launch music therapy this fall for individual patients on the inpatient unit.

One of the most widely accepted forms of complementary therapy is massage therapy. In 2004, a study of 1290 patients given massage treatments at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, reported that 52 per cent of patients reported decreased anxiety, 21 per cent experienced less nausea and 43 per cent felt less fatigued. Experts suggest two to three massages per week to obtain long-lasting relaxation from this unique therapy. Princess Margaret Hospital is planning to launch this complementary therapy in the upcoming year.

A debilitative state of fatigue is among the most common side effects experienced by upwards of 72 per cent of all cancer patients undergoing treatment. To help patients reap the benefits of recreational activities, Princess Margaret Hospital will be meeting with recreational therapy practitioners to establish a recreational therapy program that will engage patients and compliment cancer treatment.

Therapies that address all issues felt by palliative patients along their journey are an integral part of the next generation in cancer treatment. Complementary therapy is gaining power alongside medical advancements thanks to Princess Margaret Hospital’s leading example of research translating into clinical settings.