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Heather Greenlee on alternative ways to treat cancer

For generations, people with cancer were treated solely for their tumor — not for the pain and other symptoms that came with it. So patients quietly turned to alternative and complementary therapies, outside the halls of medicine.

Now, researchers like Heather Greenlee, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, are trying to bring those two approaches into harmony.

A past president of the Society for Integrative Oncology, Greenlee, who focuses on breast cancer, talked with STAT about which alternative approaches are worthwhile, how to choose treatments wisely, and what it’s like to advocate for alternative medicine in a conventional world.


Q. What are the most effective complementary therapies?

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A. There’s a lot of strong evidence on the use of mind-body therapies for things like stress management, anxiety, depression. And there’s a growing body of evidence on acupuncture for pain management.

Q. How do you personally hope to change integrative medicine?

A. Historically, integrative therapies have been only available to people who were wealthy. If these are really beneficial therapies that have low toxicity, we want to get them to everybody.

Q. Are there things cancer patients can do that might reduce their risk of a recurrence?


A. We’re testing a plant-based diet — increasing fruits and vegetables and decreasing fat, red and processed meats, sugars, processed, refined foods. One of our chefs says she’s teaching people to cook like their grandmothers.

Q. What inspired you to go into this area of research?

A. My stepfather was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was pretty young. I quickly saw where the medical system failed him. Seeing how our whole family really suffered through that, I thought there was a lot of room for improvement.

Q. You have a PhD in epidemiology as well as a degree in naturopathic medicine. Do you feel like you get less respect than you would if you had an MD?

A. Do conventional medical schools tend to want people to have the degrees they offer? Yes. [But] I work at one of the top public health schools, so I’m able to do the work I want to do.


Q. Are you concerned that patients will use alternative treatments instead of conventional ones?

A. There are some pretty wacky things that people do. A lot of patients use integrative therapies out of fear, out of hope, or out of a belief system. But medical decisions need to be made based on facts.

Q. But this is challenging for anyone to figure out, regardless of education, no?

A. Steve Jobs [the founder of Apple who died in 2011 after initially choosing to treat his rare cancer with alternative therapies rather than surgery] had access to every single resource in the world, and he still was not making evidence-based decisions about his oncology care.

Q. Does this idea that we could be doing something to prevent cancer lead to a blame mentality? That patients who haven’t taken and done everything possible feel like they deserve their illness?

A. We don’t want people to be blaming themselves for not meditating enough. We want them to say, “What are the choices I have in front of me?” There are no guarantees with any of these. There are plenty of people who have pristine diets who still die of cancer.

Q. You’re working in a high-stress job in New York City. You must be living under a lot of pressure yourself, no?

A. I need to do more yoga.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Karen Weintraub can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kweintraub.