Cancer Comfort: Minerva Santos, MD, Offers Integrative Therapies in Westchester

Dr. Minerva Santos & Dr. Andrew Weil

Dr. Minerva Santos & Dr. Andrew Weil

by Kazaray Taylor

Integrative medicine is finally gaining a firm foothold in the West, as physicians and patients alike embrace the promise of preventive healthcare through strategic choices in nutrition and lifestyle. In other words, Western medicine is just catching up with Minerva Santos, MD, who for 20 years has guided her patients to be active partners in their own healthcare.

Santos, an integrative medicine internist with a practice in Jefferson Valley, New York, is now advancing that cause as medical director of the Health and Wellness Program at Northern Westchester Hospital. Recently she talked to us about integrative medicine, the Health and Wellness Program, and how it’s helping the hospital’s cancer patients.

You recently finished your fellowship with Dr. Andrew Weil in Arizona. Tell me about that experience.

It was amazing! The University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine has a two-year fellowship in integrative medicine. There were physicians in my class from as far as Norway, and the diversity was impressive—cardiology, oncology, renal, almost every medical specialty was represented. We chose to be there because we sensed that something was missing from what we learned in medical school. Physicians need to look at patients as whole beings—mind, body, spirit; what they do, who they are. You can’t divide a person into parts to be treated.

Dr. Weil’s program emphasizes a partnership between patient and practitioners in the healing process. It is a solid, scientifically based program that critically evaluates the broad world of alternative medicine. Believe me, some things are really out there and can be very dangerous. The worst-case scenarios are patients who refuse chemotherapy in a search for alternative treatments, with disastrous results. Andrew Weil is a man with a vision regarding what medicine is and where it should be going.

And now you are the director of the new Health and Wellness Program at Northern Westchester Hospital. This hospital is a little different from most, isn’t it?

When I accepted the position over a year ago, I was excited and had so many ideas to offer—and then was surprised to find that Northern Westchester was way ahead of the curve. They had a robust program with an emphasis on local foods, organics and going green; they offered acupuncture, aromatherapy and energy medicine; they also offered Reiki to all inpatients at no cost. The hospital is one of only a few in the country designated as a Planetree hospital, which signifies it is a truly patient-centered facility.

And tell me about the Health and Wellness Program.

I am very excited about our new Cancer Health and Wellness Program for patients, which launched in April. Patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy at the hospital can enroll in our program to receive acupuncture, nutrition counseling, an exercise program, energy medicine, yoga, Pilates, stress reduction and aromatherapy, to name of few of the integrative modalities, all for free. It is going very well. The staff is the most caring and compassionate I have come across. Patients love the support during a very difficult time, and studies reinforce the fact that patients do better and use less pain and anti-nausea medication when participating in programs like ours.

You’ll be conducting your own clinical studies, right?

Yes. The first study will assess the improvement in stress level and quality of life in the patients enrolled in the program versus those who choose not to participate. I hope to publish the results to support the fact that integrative medicine makes a difference. The next study will focus on patients undergoing radiation, assessing how an herbal topical cream might help prevent burns or changes in the skin, which are common side effects of radiation treatment. I will work closely with the oncology department, as they need to be 100 percent on board.

What advice can you give our readers about which foods to eat—or not—during cancer treatment?

That’s a hard one when you still have oncologists who tell patients not to eat fruits or veggies because of the antioxidants, or not to take Omegas because of possible bleeding problems. During my recent integrative medicine fellowship, I found it interesting that there were more oncologists in the program than any other medical specialists, and I came to understand how difficult a field oncology is.

Regarding diets, each patient must be evaluated individually. Someone with breast cancer needs a different diet than someone with an ENT carcinoma or prostate cancer. A serious problem I come across is patients taking various supplements or eating certain foods just because they read or heard about them. That could be dangerous, because some supplements can reduce the strength of chemotherapy. Cancer patients should seek the advice of someone trained to put the whole picture together.

Are there foods that can help patients stay cancer-free?

I wish there were foods that would guarantee you would be cancer-free. There are many that can help lower your risk. For starters, I would avoid processed foods as much as possible and follow an anti-inflammatory diet. Consuming fruits and veggies that span the color spectrum is very important. For example, tomatoes—whether in marinara sauce or just stewed—have been shown to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. (Aim for two cups of cooked tomatoes per week; cooking maximizes the lycopene.) Even the healthiest diet can’t lower your cancer risk to zero, but anything we do to lower that risk is worth it.

As integrative medicine becomes mainstream, do you still find there are challenges in the field?

Well my biggest challenge is my peers who tend to place all integrative medicine into this box called “bogus.” Fortunately, because I’m well-respected in the medical community, having practiced internal medicine for 20 years, my peers listen with an open mind—they know I’m not prescribing “eye of newt” to my patients! My focus is on preventing illness through diet, exercise and stress reduction.

What’s in the future with your work that you are excited about?

My list of things to be excited about goes on and on! We are starting a wellness program at Northern Westchester Hospital for employees. I’m writing a book on stress reduction, and I’ve joined the Mount Kisco Medical Group. I’m also studying botanical medicine with Tieraona Low Dog, MD, the director of the fellowship at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. She’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met.

Dr. Santos has a private practice at 691 East Main St., Jefferson Valley, NY. For more information, visit MinervaSantosMD.com or call 914.245.6800.

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