Health Scan: Seeing the whole picture

Guess what some hospitals are now incorporating into their treatments? Spiritual escorts and blueberry extract.

Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/RAMBAM MEDICAL CENTER)
Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center
Medications and treatments address many hematologic diseases, but they do not always meet the patient’s emotional needs while fighting for his or her life. In order to restore control over the management of the disease to the patient, the hematology department at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa team integrated a qualified spiritual-care provider into the treatment.
Treatment of hematologic diseases is not simple for patients; it involves challenges and physical, emotional and spiritual coping with the malignancy. Due to treatment complexity, the patient often needs more tools to cope with the condition and make the appropriate decisions in the process. In Rambam, beyond the medical and nursing staff who do their best to fight the cancer, there is another multidisciplinary team that includes a spiritual escort.
“After the interaction with the doctor ends, the patient begins internal and emotional processing,” said Vauklina Gil, a certified spiritual counselor who works in the Rambam’s hematology department as part of its palliative care team. He helps the patients connect to their feelings, desires and concerns.
“While the physician has a work plan, gets approval for medications, coordinates tests and begins treatment, the patient finds himself engaged in a task that is not clear to him. He is exposed to new concepts and a lot of information and seeks to reorganize his thoughts and understanding of the changing reality,” Gil said.
“Often, the patient hesitates to share his fears with the doctor or with family members and other people close to him. With spiritual accompaniment, a space is created in which the patient is able to connect with himself and his spiritual resources to help him deal with everything he has experienced.”
Through conversations and personalized activities with patients, the spiritual caregiver helps patients find inner tools and connect to their feelings so that they can share them with their loved ones and be able to express themselves and their desires without fear.”
At the same time, with the patient’s approval, the spiritual guide sends messages to the treating physician and allows the two to build a bridge for mutual understanding between the patient’s perceptions and his emotional needs. Equipped with this information, the doctor returns to the patient, and the two construct a treatment plan that addresses all aspects.
“We see how this process has a positive effect on the patients’ coping,” explained Dr. Yishai Ofran, director of Rambam’s hematological hospitalization and head of the leukemia treatment service. “An additional dimension of communication between the physician and the patient is created.”
According to Ofran, this process has great significance even when the patient is terminally ill.
“In such a sensitive and difficult place, we restore some control into the patient’s hands. This is the meaning of putting the patient in the center.”
The effectiveness of radiotherapy for cervical cancer can be increased when the patient consumes blueberry extract before the treatment, according to an in-vitro study on “radiosensitizers” – non-toxic chemicals that make cancer cells more responsive to radiation therapy.
According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 12,000 women in the US are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. One of the most common treatments for cervical cancer is radiation, which destroys cancer cells but also destroys healthy cells nearby. University of Missouri School of Medicine researchers studied human cancer cells in the lab and found the natural benefit of the blueberry extract.
“Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays and other particles, such as gamma rays, to destroy cancer cells,” said Prof. Yujiang Fang, a visiting professor of microbiology and pathology at the university’s School of Medicine and lead author of the study, who originally came from the University of Des Moines in Iowa.
“For some cancers, such as late-stage cervical cancer, radiation is a good treatment option. However, collateral damage to healthy cells always occurs. Based on previous research, we studied blueberry extract to verify it could be used as a radiosensitizer.”
In a previous study, Fang and his research team showed that resveratrol, a compound in red grapes, could be used as a radiosensitizer for treating prostate cancer. Blueberries also contain resveratrol.
“In addition to resveratrol, blueberries also contain flavonoids,’ said Fang. “Flavonoids are chemicals that may have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.”
The cell lines were divided into four groups that included a control group, a group that received only radiation, a group that received only blueberry extract, and a group that received both radiation and the extract.
“Radiation decreased cancer cells by 20%. Interestingly, the cell group that received only blueberry extract had a 25% decrease in cancer. However, the biggest decline in cancer cells occurred in the radiation-and-extract group, with a decrease of 70%.”
Fang explained that the mechanism that makes blueberry extract a radiosensitizer also reduces the abnormal explosion of cell growth, which is what cancer is.
“Cancer cells avoid death by remodeling themselves,” Fang said. “Along with reducing cell proliferation, the extract also ‘tricks’ cancer cells into dying. Thus, it inhibits the birth and promotes the death of cancer cells,” Fang said an animal study is the next step to confirm that his team can achieve the same result.