Back in the '90s, patients would ask radiation oncologist Dr. Stephen Sagar about other approaches to their cancer care, but often those alternatives did not make sense or were potentially harmful.
Those requests prompted the McMaster University oncology professor to start research into which evidence-based complementary therapies could be helpful, particularly with symptom control. He and his team have integrated acupuncture, exercise, meditation, yoga, tai chi and nutritional changes with conventional care.
In addition, the professor of oncology at McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine and radiation oncologist at the Juravinski Cancer Centre has worked with professional organizations to define scopes of practice, effectiveness, regulatory standards, and guidelines for complementary therapies.
Sagar has also helped establish the new discipline of integrative oncology, and he is a leader in the use of mind-body medicine and supportive care in the treatment of cancer patients.
Now he is receiving an award for lifetime achievements in the field. Next month Sagar will be given a $50,000 Dr. Rogers Prize Groundbreaker Award for Excellence in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, as one of five Canadian physicians to be recognized.
The winners were selected by an international jury in recognition of their lifetime of dedication to patient care, often in adversity; and the award honours those with personal conviction to pursue practices above and beyond the medical status quo to prepare the way for future leaders.
Sagar defines integrative oncology as using the best evidence for all interventions that would help a specific patient. Beyond drugs, surgery or radiation, treatment may involve changes to lifestyle such as diet and exercise, using mind techniques to relieve stress, and, for some, selecting certain evidence-based supplements.
"So, it's really expanding the definition of health care to include everything that may help that patient that is based upon evidence, and also practicality for that patient as well as affordability for the health care service," he said.
For example, his team found that acupuncture alleviated chemotherapy-induced vomiting by either enhancing the effect of nausea prevention drugs, or in some cases working where anti-nausea drugs did not.
These therapies were thought to be "fringe" two decades ago, said Sagar. "We've moved forward now, so that it's pretty much accepted that mind, body and spirit are extremely important in all fields of health care, and I'm so proud that McMaster University really started that off before I was even here.
"I'm pleased that I've been able to continue that work."
He said he's honoured to receive the award, and he plans to use the prize "to encourage students in our Faculty of Health Sciences to take an interest in projects in this area, and for them to be able to initiate more supportive care of patients in my field, so that we can continue to improve the quality of life of patients."
The late Dr. Roger Hayward Rogers of B.C. was among the first physicians to provide non-traditional therapies for cancer patients and he championed the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). The Dr. Rogers Prize, a $250,000 award given every two years, recognizes innovators in CAM health care who embody his level of vision, leadership, and integrity.