Fernando J. Camacho, MD, is a typically busy oncologist. He is the director of Community Oncology and the medical director of Integrative Oncology at Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care, and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Medicine (Oncology) at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, both in New York City. Since he works at one of the country’s premier cancer facilities, Dr Camacho has a full armamentarium of medications and modalities available to him for treating his patients, including one he uses on himself: meditation. Dr Camacho is more than happy to share the benefits of meditation with his patients—and anyone else who would like to learn. He teaches the practice at both hospital locations.
Dr Camacho does not recommend meditation for all of his patients, only those he feels would derive the most benefit from it. He will suggest meditation to someone who is unusually anxious or having difficulty dealing with the disease or its complications.
The timing has to be right. He says that learning meditation is probably not ideal for patients while they are in the middle of active therapy, since they are busy with chemotherapy or radiation treatments and resting when they can. The patients who come to his meditation sessions are usually survivors or patients with cancer who are doing well on their current treatment regimens. He notes that men typically do not go for help as much as women. Although he does have male patients in his classes, the breakdown is 20% men to 80% women. Participants range in age from 40 years to almost 80 years.
Dr Camacho introduces his class participants to meditation by telling them, “This is a tool you can use to relieve some of your suffering.” He explains that the tool is free and readily available, and the only thing it requires is the patients themselves, and they can use the tool to help with all aspects of life.
Each class is approximately an hour long. Dr Camacho spends part of each session talking with the patients, explaining how they can express their feelings. Although anxious people who are coping with cancer have difficulty concentrating, he teaches them to find a way to sit still for a while. Dr Camacho is right in there with them, helping them to calm down, explaining how the technique works and will empower them to take care of themselves and their health.
He demonstrates some basic mindfulness breathing exercises and teaches them about walking meditation. Camacho explains how this is something they can readily do … they do not have wait until they are in a particular setting and must be sitting to meditate. He assures his patients they can simply be very aware of the world, which is a type of meditation in itself.
Once the technique is learned, some patients use meditation to achieve pain relief and some find it helps with anxiety. Dr Camacho says he has many patients who suffer from anxiety that is not necessarily related to their cancer, but related to their life and their families. He is very aware that everything cancer patients experience is much more stressful because they are coping with the disease.
Dr Camacho explains that, as an oncologist, witnessing the distress his patients experienced affected him, and he became significantly run down. At times, his patients’ agony would immobilize him so he was unable to function effectively. At that point, he began looking for coping techniques that “could help me deal with all the pain and suffering that life provides.”
He explained he had been brought up with mostly Christian Western traditions, and although he liked them, he wanted to experience the philosophies of some of the Eastern religions as well. He began to read more, and eventually explored Buddhist traditions that taught him meditation. It changed his life; made him a better listener and a better person.
Dr Camacho explained, “Our minds are very busy, always taking us to different places that we don’t necessarily want to go to. The whole point of meditation is to get you to concentrate on one thing. As a result, I find that I care for my patients just as much now, but I’m able to put it into the context of what the world is and not let it take over my thinking. So, because I found meditation so helpful and it was so soothing to me, I thought I needed to share it with people around me. That’s why I started these classes.”
INTEGRATIVE ONCOLOGY PROGRAM
As a result of the successful meditation program, Dr Camacho and psychologist Alyson Moadel, PhD, developed the Integrative Oncology Program, bringing together modalities such as meditation, yoga, Reiki, Tai Chi, music and art therapy, acupuncture, and physical therapy. Because data on the anxiety relief patients with cancer achieve with meditation are sparse, the Integrative Oncology Program is currently initiating studies on the subject. Their next step is to identify which patients would be helped by a specific modality.