Complementary health care (CAM), including massage therapy, is increasingly incorporated into the hospital setting. A program at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center in Durham, North Carolina, that focuses on caring for the whole person—mind, body and spirit—is helping women with cancer improve their quality of life.

The Pathfinders program focuses on the seven pillars of personal recovery: hope, balance, inner strengths, self care, support, spirit and life review. The program provides patient navigation, counseling, coping skills training, mind and body techniques and lifestyle advice.

A new pilot study shows the program is finding success among its participants.

For this study, the researchers enrolled 50 adult breast cancer patients with a prognosis of less than six months survival. The women met with a Pathfinder (a trained professional with an advanced degree in social work, family counseling or therapy) at least once a month, in addition to telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges. The Pathfinders helped the women identify inner strengths, taught them coping skills and encouraged them to engage in CAM medical services.

“There is a growing body of data that shows cancer patients have unmet psychosocial needs, and with programs like Pathfinders we are able to care for the whole person,” said Amy Abernethy, M.D., an oncologist at Duke University Medical Center and lead investigator on the study. “As a result, we found that this group of women reported a higher quality of life three months after being diagnosed than was expected.”

In 2004 researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Service and Biostatistics Service, in New York City, found massage therapy significantly improved cancer patients’ symptoms, such as pain, anxiety, nausea, fatigue and depression. That year as well, research from The Touch Research Institutes, in Miami, Florida, found that women with breast cancer who received massage therapy showed a significant increase in both beneficial natural-killer cells and dopamine levels, and a significant decrease in long-term anxiety, as compared to women who received relaxation therapy.

The Duke researchers will present their findings on a poster at the 2009 American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Orlando, on Sunday, May 31.

Editor’s note: read about The Hand to Heart Project, a program that provides free, in-home massage therapy to people who are living with an advanced cancer, in “Project Brings Massage to Cancer Patients” in the News section in MASSAGE Magazine’s July/August 2009 issue.