Moment by Moment
An integrative approach to healing improves quality of life
Alice Trumbull leans across the hand-painted, harlequin-patterned dining room table. “It was October,” she says, “and the landlord wasn’t legally required to turn the heat on. But our member was having cancer surgery, and it wouldn’t do for her to come home to a cold apartment. We tried to persuade the landlord to turn on the heat, but in the end, we found another apartment and moved her there before surgery.”
This is what makes Moments House—a nonprofit sanctuary and support center for people with cancer—so exceptional. Though not a medical treatment facility, Moments House is part of a trend toward integrative medicine that considers the whole person’s needs—mental, emotional, and spiritual as well as physical. In fact, according to Dr. Mark Pettus, medical director of Wellness and Population Health for Berkshire Health Systems, the whole treatment paradigm is changing from one of curing sickness to one of promoting wellness. The lifestyle changes and mental-attitude shifts encouraged at Moments House are key for everyone who wants a healthier life.
Many in the Berkshires touched by cancer know about Pittsfield-based Moments House, which serves as both a resource and a source of consolation. Located at 34 Depot Street (above Baba Louie’s), every square inch is warm and comfortable, bright and cheery. It was founded four years ago by Trumbull and her daughter, Danielle, to keep alive the memory of the elder Trumbull’s friend Linda, who died of breast cancer. The name comes from the saying, “Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.”
Funded exclusively by contributions, grants, and in-kind donations, Moments House’s financial model is volunteerism. Alice Trumbull, the only full-time volunteer, works with other volunteers who come and go. In total, roughly 750 hours are donated each month. In Trumbull’s view, “No one is too young to give back.” Children make bracelets to leave for cancer patients in treatment centers, decorate and sell pens, and make lemonade to raise a few dollars for the cause. In a given week, 80 to 100 people are helped. They receive transportation to treatments; free wigs, scarves, and hats; and, perhaps most valuable of all, access to Trumbull’s knowledge of resources and her huge heart.
Moments House also serves families and friends of those with cancer. There are support gatherings for those living with the disease and for their caregivers, for teens and young children who have cancer in their family, and for those who are cured and need help readjusting to their lives as survivors. No-cost legal advice and bereavement counseling are available, too. Programs are provided in nutrition, meditation, and “living in the moment” life skills. Members receive Reiki, restorative yoga, acupuncture treatments, foot reflexology, and massage—all free of charge.
These are the same treatments that Pettus believes can help change the perception of healing. Pettus, who has an MD from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, began his exploration of alternative treatments because of his own gene pool. Both his parents died young after years of failing health and dialysis treatments. He watched his own cholesterol level and blood pressure rise. He began to wonder if there wasn’t value in a different attitude and innovative approaches. Pettus discovered that “humans have the capacity to prevent genetic predispositions.” He embarked on a self-directed journey to learn more about nutrition and other forms of treatment such as acupuncture and Reiki. He studied the research and discovered proof that “meditation in various forms is a powerful tool for self-regulation that can have significant impact on stress reduction. It can improve mood, reduce anxiety, enhance the body’s tolerance of chemotherapy and radiation, reduce the risk of infection, and promote wound healing.” The new science of epigenetics suggests that while we cannot change our genes, we can have an impact on their behavior.
Disease and stress are interrelated and often feed off the other. For members of Moments House, many with low incomes, disease in the family means loss of revenue, increased expenses, and strain on the family. Regular meditation or massage lessens the stress and shifts the attitude of both patient and family from depression and despair to self-empowerment and envisioning recovery.
Alternate therapies have long been available in the Berkshires at such upscale venues as Canyon Ranch and Kripalu. These facilities have brought a large number of independent practitioners to the county, making their services available to those who can afford them. While most insurance companies don’t cover acupuncture, Reiki, or massage, there are signs of change.
For those of limited means, alternative treatments and the philosophy behind them have been out of reach financially. But in an exciting move within the last year, Berkshire Health Systems (BHS) partnered with the Canyon Ranch Institute to establish the Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program. The partnership regularly offers a 12-week healing experience to 20 underserved county residents. This multidisciplinary program, based on the best practices of Canyon Ranch, includes consultation with BHS medical practitioners along with nutritional education, meditation, hands-on treatments, and group interaction.
Participants in the program report life-changing results. “I used to drink two liters of Coke a day,” says one graduate. “I only ate one meal a day, but it began when I got up and ended when I went to bed. I was overweight and seldom left home. Now I eat three meals a day. I shop differently, reading food labels and avoiding processed food. The BHS staff was amazing.”
Dr. Susan Lord, who practices integrative medicine in Housatonic and earned an MD from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, sees the healing journey as a step-by-step process to identify the underlying imbalances that cause symptoms and disease. “Typically, patients have a variety of medical problems. My job is to identify the lifestyle factors that contribute to these conditions. If it’s unhealthy eating, then nutritional counseling is appropriate. Maybe their relationship is stressed by illness, suggesting that marriage counseling might be helpful. Perhaps the patient has severe back pain that prohibits the exercise needed to reduce obesity. Then they should see an acupuncturist or a chiropractor,” she says.
In fact, the extensive list of integrative therapies and activities itself presents a challenge. At the cancer care center at BHS, where new treatments are being integrated, patients meet with a counselor, often a trained nurse, to help them select the proper course to follow.
Finding a financial model is challenging, too. Pettus hopes that evidence-based studies soon will convince insurance companies that including a multidimensional model makes good economic sense. “It’s low-tech, nontoxic, inexpensive and has a very profound impact,” he says, adding that many of the most effective modalities don’t cost a dime. However, learning the right techniques and acquiring a changed mindset do require an investment. Meditation, journaling, appreciating nature, and spending time with loved ones are all cost-free—and they’re priceless.