Q&A Feature: Alejandro Chaoul
“Integrative medicine” promotes physical, mental and spiritual health by combining conventional medical treatments with nutritional guidance and traditional approaches, such as yoga, meditation, and acupuncture.
As Roswell Park expands its integrative medicine programs, we are excited to host Alejandro Chaoul, PhD, as the keynote speaker at "Chapter 2: A Cancer Survivor's Workshop,” to be held Friday, June 16, through Saturday, June 17, at Roswell Park. Chaoul was a pioneer in introducing integrative medicine at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In the Q&A below, Dr. Chaoul shares how he got his start in mind-body practices and how integrative medicine can help cancer patients and survivors.
Tell us about your background.
I have a PhD in religious studies with a dissertation on Tibetan mind-body practice and its applications in cancer.
What made you want to study that topic and specifically how it relates to oncology?
I started studying the Tibetan mind/body practices for my own interest, both in terms of health and spiritual interest. I was fascinated by the Tibetan culture and their mind-body practices, and that's what led me to want to study it academically as well. I started by taking my first trip to India in 1989, and I got interested in these practices, in meditation, and later in Tibetan yoga, so I started practicing it.
Years later, in the ’90s, while I was doing my PhD at Rice University in Houston, I realized that there was a large cancer center [including M.D. Anderson] nearby. Soon after, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and after visiting M.D. Anderson, I asked my Tibetan teacher if it was okay to share some of the practices I had learned with him. With his approval, M.D. Anderson thought it would be great if I offered some meditation practices there.
Can you explain what integrative medicine means?
Before the term integrative medicine was used, there was alternative medicine, which means a treatment that’s used instead of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine would be more of a way of bringing both conventional and non-conventional treatments together, where usually the patient does something on their own, and maybe tells or does not tell their doctors.
Integrative medicine is really to “do it together.” It involves real communication about these therapies, between not only the patient and the doctor but also among doctors and other practitioners. For example, at M.D. Anderson, when the oncologist writes their notes, I can see them, and when I write my notes, the oncology team sees them. We're all interconnected through the clinical history and the clinical records. Also, in our case, the patient can also see our notes. In that way, we're all working together for the health and the well-being of the patient.
Would integrative medicine be considered part of palliative care?
Integrative medicine helps all through the cancer journey, so it really depends on how a particular hospital or academic institution decides to classify it. But, yes, there's a connection to palliative care, particularly in the aspect of supportive care. When you think of palliative care not just at the end of life but really as soon as you're diagnosed, you can benefit from all these practices and ways of caring that don't necessarily have to be pharmacological [drug-based].
Do you think people often misunderstand and think that palliative care is just for patients who are approaching the end of life?
Yes, totally. I think there is a misperception that palliative care is provided at the end of life. Palliative care is believed to help with any aspect of pain or other symptoms. Palliative care can start as early on as supportive care. You don't have to be at the end of life.
I am looking forward to visiting Roswell in June, and sharing these practices with cancer survivors.
Connect with other cancer survivors during a healing weekend featuring meditation, yoga, nutrition information, drumming and much more. Reserve your spot for Chapter 2: A Cancer Survivor's Workshop today.