Integrative Cancer Care at The Block CenterJuly 2009
By Christie C. Yerby, ND
As if confronting a potentially fatal disease were not daunting enough, many cancer patients also have to contend with a host of debilitating side effects induced by chemotherapy and radiation treatment. These range from fatigue and hair loss to life-threatening pneumonia and emboli or a crippling wasting of lean muscle mass.
Today, however, more cancer care specialists are recognizing the value of integrative programs that incorporate specialized diets, health-promoting herbs and nutrients, and mind-body therapies to increase the efficacy of conventional cancer treatment while limiting its harmful side effects.1,2
At the forefront of this emerging model of integrative cancer care is Dr. Keith Block, who has long maintained that nutrients and phytochemicals provide critical support for cancer patients. At the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment, patients benefit from customized treatment regimens designed to boost immunity, mitigate side effects, help prevent the loss of muscle mass (cachexia), maximize the efficacy of chemotherapy, and stop the spread of cancer.
In this article, we describe how Dr. Block’s newly released book Life Over Cancer and approach to integrative cancer care are providing patients with a “survivor’s edge” by enhancing quality of life, reducing toxicity, and improving patient outcomes. This approach charts an exciting new future for comprehensive cancer treatment.
Unique, Individualized Cancer Care
Located in Evanston, Illinois, the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment was founded in 1980 by Drs. Keith and Penny Block. This research-based treatment center combines the best of conventional cancer treatment modalities with complementary non-drug therapies such as personalized nutritional supplementation, customized exercise, therapeutic diet, massage, and training in yoga, meditation, and mind-body stress care. The Center seeks to provide comprehensive, integrative cancer care through individualized treatment regimens aimed at restoring the biological integrity of the patient and forming the foundation of a long-lasting recovery.
The Block Center’s approach to cancer care begins with a detailed patient assessment, including biochemical, molecular and gene-based profiles and clinical evaluations of nutritional and physical status, quality of life, and well-being. These data are used to create an individualized care plan that emphasizes patient involvement and includes a customized nutritional regimen, with therapeutic physical, psychological, and emotional interventions. Since each patient’s biology is continually changing, treatment options are constantly reviewed and revised based on the most current diagnostic and medical data. This means that every component of care is individualized to match a patient’s unique biology, disease and treatment specifics, and personal and family needs.
“We provide detailed education for each patient, including a strong biological understanding of their comprehensive clinical treatment plan and hands-on training,” Dr. Block tells Life Extension. “It’s not enough to simply prescribe—patients need to be trained and equipped to carry out a therapeutic regimen. We believe patients must be active participants in their care—that is, they must ‘own’ it.”
Block Center’s Cancer Rehabilitation Program
According to Dr. Block, “We won’t start chemotherapy with a patient who is not fit enough to withstand and benefit from the treatment. Otherwise, it is unfair to the patient and gives the cancer a decided advantage. The disease already has a head start, so cancer patients must be physically, psychologically, and nutritionally strengthened to be able to take it on.”
This rehabilitation program, which is tailored to each patient and is monitored throughout treatment, is regularly modified according to the patient’s changing condition, and continues until full recovery. Patients on conventional chemotherapy often suffer from post-treatment symptoms such as fatigue, “chemo brain” (changes in memory and attention following chemotherapy), physical weakness, and depression. The Block Center’s rehabilitation program enables patients to better tolerate chemotherapy, and to regain and rebuild their resilience. Conventional treatments can lead to a burden of toxic metabolites. On entering the blood, these complexes can trigger inflammatory cascades resulting in increased mutation and thus more aggressive cancer cells. This can lead to treatment resistance and a greater potential for progression and recurrence. Detoxification strategies are a critical aspect of addressing these metabolites and the rehabilitative process.
Chronotherapy: Maximizing the Efficacy of Chemotherapy
When chemotherapy is required, doctors at the Block Center use a unique method of drug delivery called chronomodulated chemotherapy, also known as chronotherapy, which seeks to coordinate the body’s biological rhythms with the application of chemotherapy. Every drug has an optimal time of application when it is least toxic and most effective.
The Block Center is the first US medical clinic to use a portable, computerized, FDA-approved pump to administer chronotherapy. Unlike conventionally infused chemotherapy, this chronomodulated method provides a coordinated rhythm of dosing based on “timing.” Infusion of the chemotherapy drug resembles a perfectly symmetrical wave, called a sine wave curve: it starts slowly and ratchets up, hour by hour, slowly increasing to the middle point of the cycle, where it peaks and infuses most of the drug, and then slowly ratchets back down. The timing of the drug is based on several important factors related to the medication’s characteristics, the patient’s circadian rhythms, and the nature of the cancer. This coordination of biological rhythms creates a better “kill rate” for the cancer, with less toxicity to healthy cells. Patients are able to wear this small portable pump in a fanny pack around their waist, allowing them to be active during treatment and maintain routine activities.3-5
Patients who undergo these advanced chemotherapy treatments in the context of a full integrative medical program often report only mild or negligible side effects. This is highly significant, since as many as a third of all cancer patients abandon chemotherapy before its completion due to their inability to tolerate its physical side effects and the associated psychological stress.
In fact, published research confirms that chronotherapy is associated with improved outcomes, including reduced toxicity and improved survival. A review of patients with metastatic colon cancer found that chronomodulated chemotherapy halved toxicity and doubled treatment response.6 Another review found that in patients with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, optimal timing of chemotherapy quadrupled five-year survival rates, in addition to reducing toxic side effects by 50%.7
Dr. Block says that chronotherapy has enabled patients who were unable to tolerate conventional chemotherapy to use the same chemotherapy drug they previously stopped and to complete chemotherapy treatment. Chronotherapy has also benefited patients whose cancers were previously inoperable, by reducing the size of their tumors enough to make surgery possible. Over 40 major centers in Europe are currently participating in collaborative research using this method of chemotherapy administration.
Establishing Optimal Health Through Nutrition
Dr. Block believes that it is as critical to establish optimal health through integrative and nutritional interventions, especially in treating advanced cancer, as it is to eradicate the disease itself.
“We focus on developing a path to recovery through a comprehensive and integrative program of treatment and care,” he notes. “We view illness as a turning point, a wake-up call for reclaiming your health and transforming your life.”
For over two decades, Dr. Block and his research team have been investigating the effect of nutritional interventions on various cancers among different patient populations. These findings have been incorporated in the Center’s nutritional program, which emphasizes nutrients such as fish oil rich in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate, the principal polyphenol in green tea), selenium, glycine, silymarin (a flavonoid in milk thistle),1,2 and DIM (diindolylmethane, an indole found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower).
In addressing difficult-to-treat oncology issues, particularly for patients with advanced cancer, Dr. Block will adopt more aggressive nutritional and medical strategies, “leaving no stone unturned” for cancer management. Besides improving stamina and vitality, Dr. Block’s program now targets malignancy by inhibiting angiogenesis, inducing programmed cell death, blocking cellular growth, and boosting immune function.
Building a Nutritional Foundation
The Block Center’s core nutraceutical program for cancer management has three components: first, laying a foundation of nutritional support; second, targeting the biochemical environment the disease resides in; and third, addressing the molecular pattern of the disease, along with the coupling of nutraceuticals with treatments in order to improve response while reducing toxicity. The first part focuses on meeting the patient’s basic nutritional needs. Nutritional programs are personalized through testing, and implemented with the goal of restoring stamina and vitality. The Block program recommends a diet rich in antioxidants and whole plant-based supplements that reflect the full spectrum of nutrients found in food. Dr. Block believes that combinations of antioxidants have more potent anticancer effects than individual nutrients.8-10
A diet low in saturated fats and high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, fruits, cruciferous vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, and plant-based sources of protein helps form this foundation. This nutritional strategy targets the patient’s internal terrain, creating an environment inhospitable to further disease. This is intended to help curtail inflammation, reduce free-radical damage, minimize platelet activation (which can lead to dangerous blood clotting), manage blood sugar surges, and reduce serum levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1 (which stimulates cell multiplication and inhibits cell death).
Integrated into the core Block nutrition plan are additional micronutrients, macronutrients, and phytochemicals that more fully and quickly improve general resistance. For many cancer patients, these may include vitamin B12, selenium, beta-carotene, zinc, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin D, gamma tocopherol, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, chromium, lycopene, and lutein. Dr. Block also uses a Chinese botanical adaptogenic formula to increase the body’s resistance to stress, help patients overcome fatigue and malaise induced by chemotherapy and radiation, and improve vitality.
Unlike conventional cancer management, the Block Center’s foundational program targets one of the most serious consequences of the disease, known as cancer cachexia. This is a type of malnutrition associated with appetite suppression, muscle wasting, weight loss, and weakness. Dr. Block quotes research indicating that 20-30% of cancer patients actually die from complications of malnutrition, rather than from cancer itself. In addition, he says, 80% of cancer patients suffer from some form of clinical malnutrition, yet many oncologists still consider proper nutrition an “incidental” rather than a crucial factor in the battle against cancer.
Diets that are high in EPA-rich fish oil may help cancer patients suffering from cachexia to gain weight and improve their nutritional status.11 EPA may also counter cancer cachexia through its anti-inflammatory effects and its ability to displace arachidonic acid, a pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid, from cell membranes.12 Reducing intake of foods containing arachidonic acid, such as red meat, egg yolks, poultry, and dairy products, can also help shift the body’s biochemistry away from a pro-inflammatory environment. A high intake of L-glutamine can likewise have a beneficial muscle-sparing effect to help prevent cancer cachexia.13-15