Shot of a little girl laying in bed at a hospital hugging teddy bear

At Columbia, Integrative Therapy for Children with Cancer Is Mainstream

Research suggests that when conventional medicine and integrative health treatments are practiced in tandem, cancer patients win. The multidisciplinary team at Columbia’s Center for Comprehensive Wellness puts that science into practice. The center offers treatments such as acupuncture and massage to support children with cancer and cancer patients of all ages during their treatment with chemotherapy and radiation.  

“There’s more evidence now than ever before that integrative treatment, as a support to essential conventional care, is a safe, effective approach to oncology care,” says Elena J. Ladas, PhD, RD, the center's co-director. “Integrative treatment, in combination with conventional medicine, gives patients the best quality of life.”  

What is integrative health?

Integrative health, also known as integrative medicine, is an approach to health care once referred to as alternative. In recent years, scientific research helped move such treatments as massage, acupuncture, nutrition, and exercise counseling into the mainstream.  

One of the center's early studies found that treatment with milk thistle, a hepatoprotectant, can reduce toxic effects of chemotherapy on the liver. (Hepato means liver). Several studies found that acupuncture is an effective treatment for pain and chemotherapy-related nausea vomiting. The center's researchers also found acupuncture is safe among patients with severe immunosuppression or low platelet counts due to the cancer treatments.  

Health professionals like Ladas and her team see the benefits of partnering different forms of medicine—like offering acupuncture alongside chemotherapy—to best benefit patients. It's a benefit patients recognize: More than 80% of Columbia’s pediatric oncology patients take advantage of the integrative care. And they all come back for more, says Ladas, even when they’re off cancer therapy. 

“Our patients report integrative therapies help them with a variety of side effects related to cancer treatment," she says, such as pain, anxiety, insomnia, neuropathy, constipation, nausea/vomiting, and even excessive weight gain secondary to prolonged exposure to steroids.   

Because of private donations, patients receive treatment for free. It’s vital to the program’s success, says Ladas, noting the economic diversity of patients. “If these services weren’t free, people simply would not get them. This program brings wellness to all patients, irrespective of their ability to obtain or pay for integrative services. We view it as health equity; everyone should have the chance for as good a quality of life as possible while enduring treatment for cancer.”  

Integrative health care and kids 

woman helping a child stretch his leg

An integrative health therapist helps a pediatric oncology patient with stretching. Photo: Columbia Center for Comprehensive Wellness.

The center created the first integrative health program for children with cancer, a natural fit for Columbia’s Center for Comprehensive Wellness, because multidisciplinary care—using every available resource—is how most pediatric oncologists operate to lessen the pain experienced by their patients. (The survival rate for the most common pediatric cancers exceeds 80%.)   

“Our patients receive care in a soothing and welcoming atmosphere; they even sometimes look forward to coming in for treatment,” says Luca Szalontay, MD, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Seeing their loved one relax puts caretakers at ease, too, and allows doctors to focus on medical needs. “The result is an unmistakably palpable change in the well-being of patients, their caretakers, and our medical workers,” says Szalontay. “Everyone wins.” 

At Columbia, integrative health professionals are a part of the patient’s comprehensive care team. Integrative health professionals attend medical rounds with physicians and nurses and make clinical recommendations in medical charts. Everyone in contact with a patient shares knowledge and updates—each aware of what another is doing.  

Clinical research 

The treatments used by Columbia’s Center for Comprehensive Wellness are based on the latest scientific research, and the center is also a leader in conducting scientific research about integrative treatments. “The field has really come around,” says Ladas. “It’s advanced, but we have a long way to go.”  

Current research projects at the center include studies on:

  1. Probiotics 
    • Funded by the NIH, the center is seeking probiotics that prevent acute graft-versus-host disease, a complication after a bone marrow transplant when a recipient’s body launches an immune attack against donor cells.   
  2. Diet 
    • Funded by the Department of Defense, the center is analyzing a telemedicine-based dietary intervention to prevent obesity in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.  
  3. Acupuncture 
    • The team is studying the effect of acupuncture for pain management in general and specifically to treat pain related to lumbar puncture (AKA spinal tap). 


Integrative Medicine


More information

The Center for Comprehensive Wellness combines personalized integrative medicine and supportive care, from diagnosis to recovery and survivorship, and is part of the Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital.

Elena J. Ladas, PhD, RD, is the Sid and Helaine Associate Professor for Global Integrative Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics and associate professor of nutrition at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is co-director of the Center for Comprehensive Wellness, director the Integrative Therapies Program, and director of the International Initiative for Pediatrics and Nutrition in the Department of Pediatrics. She wrote "Integrative Strategies For Cancer Patients: A Practical Resource For Managing The Side Effects Of Cancer Therapy."

To schedule a consult or learn more about the Integrative Therapies Program, call Michelle Bombacie, program manager: 212-305-9770.

Luca Szalontay, MD, is a pediatric hematologist-oncologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.