VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System will open an integrative oncology clinic this summer at its University Drive campus.

Integrative oncology combines complementary practices, such as yoga and acupuncture, with conventional cancer care, such as surgery and chemotherapy. A primary goal is to help prevent or lessen side effects from surgery and chemotherapy.

The new clinic will initially serve Veteran patients who have prostate cancer with plans to expand to more types of cancers. Funded through a national VA Whole Health grant, it will serve Veterans in person and virtually via VA Video Connect.

The clinic is the first of its kind for VA. Lisa Denk, cancer administrator, said it will serve as a model for other VA medical centers that want to open their own clinics. “Other VA medical centers are very interested and have similar ideas,” she noted.

Treatments tailored to each Veteran’s goals

The clinic will use VA’s Whole Health approach, which considers what matters to Veterans, as opposed to what’s the matter with them. Using whole health concepts, Veterans will create a personal health plan. They will then work with their integrative oncology clinician to make shared goals based on their reasons for wanting to be healthy. Treatments will be tailored to each Veteran’s goals and can include battlefield acupuncture, aromatherapy, music and creative arts therapy.

They can also include social work and chaplaincy services, functional nutrition, mindfulness meditation, reiki, yoga, qigong, tai chi and hypnosis. “It takes a multidisciplinary team to build this,” Denk said. “We have all kinds of plans. We’re really excited.”

Prevent and minimize side effects

The clinic’s individualized therapies will help providers focus on physical, psychological and spiritual benefits to empower Veterans to take charge of their own well-being. It will also help improve Veterans’ surgical and post-therapy outcomes, and prevent and minimize chemotherapy and radiation side effects. It will also boost Veterans’ mood and morale and provide survivorship and end-of-life support.

“We’re hoping this is something that will stick and even more of our providers will get trained on resources like acupressure and even hypnosis,” Denk said.

Make sure interventions are helping

Dr. Jocelyn Tan, who recently completed her own education in integrative oncology, will serve as the main clinic provider. In addition to Tan and Denk, clinic staff will include a nurse practitioner, whole health representative and licensed social worker.

Initially, the team will enroll 40 Veterans with prostate cancer diagnoses before expanding.

“Starting this, we want to make sure our interventions are helping them,” said Denk. “That turns this into an evidence-based project, too, monitoring the interventions and the outcomes of those.”

With Pittsburgh VA providing cancer care to as many as 700 Veterans at any given time, Denk said the clinic could potentially affect hundreds of Veterans.

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