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NAVIGATION

 

Sound Therapy with
Oncologist Dr Mitchell Gaynor

[Only a journalist would struggle not to be calm! Still, she's written the main bones of the story - KSM]

It's a struggle not to be calm around Dr. Mitch Gaynor. Even at the tail end of a gray Friday afternoon, after a crammed pre-holiday week, his smile is easy, his white coat crisp, and bis speech soothing. His entire Upper East Side Manhattan office reflects his de­meanor; plants, exposed brick walls, the soft sound of ocean waves piped into every room, patients snuggled on soft recliners and sipping green tea.

It hardly seems the kind of place where patients come to face one of their worst nightmares: cancer treatment. But that's the point. Gaynor, an assistant clinical pro­fessor of medicine at WEILL CORNELL, has become a leader in the increasingly accept­ed movement toward integrative oncology—combining traditional Western medicine (chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow transplants)with Eastern techniques such as meditation and yoga, along with lifestyle changes, nutrition programs, and dietary supplements. "When a patient comes to an oncologist for the first time, there's a tidal wave of fear, a tidal wave of questions," Gaynor says. But add some guided medita­tion and music therapy to the talk about chemo and surgery, he says, and "people invariably say they're the most relaxed they've ever been." It's a bold statement and hard to believe—but his patients speak in equally gushing terms about their treatment. "The meditation is the most beauti­ful experience," says breast cancer survivor Rosemarie. "I feel like I've been to heaven and back. I really never even felt sick."

Another patient, Marisa, had been given just six months to live by a string of reputable doctors, but under Gaynor's care went from being a Type-A corporate vice president of human resources to a holistic therapy convert. She credits meditation, along with a massive diet overhaul and Gaynor's patient support group, with the fact that she's still alive, her pancreatic can­cer in check, seven years later. "Everyone else had said there was nothing that could be done," she says. "But he said, 'There's so much you can do to fight this.'"

About fifteen years ago, Gaynor discov­ered Eastern spiritual practices—and their connection to healing—when he treated a Tibetan monk who introduced him to chanting and to the metal singing bowls that have become a staple of his practice. At the time he started prescribing Eastern approaches, he had already studied the wide-ranging effects of nutrition on cancer treatment and prevention, and had been using guided imagery with patients. But it was then, in the early Nineties, that his mission became as clear as the ringing of that monk's bowls: he would use his extensive credentials in traditional medicine—and the growing number of rep­utable studies exploring alternative therapies—to take holistic practices to the masses. Four books, a meditation CD, and countless lectures and media profiles later, he has helped the field move toward main­stream acceptance.One area of research that's currently exploding, Gaynor says, is neurocardiology, the study of nervous system connections between the brain and the heart. "When­ever you're stressed, your heart goes into irregular rhythms," he says. "It then releas­es chemicals throughout your blood stream that affect your immunity, your digestion, everything. We really are what we think."

nother hot topic: nutrition's role in dis­eases from cancer to arthritis and high blood pressure. "It's important that people know they can eat to prevent cancer," he says. "By far the biggest promise for cancer is to not get it in the first place." In fact, that applies on a global scale as well, as he outlines in his book Nurture Nature/ Nurture Health. Gaynor blames cancer's massive proliferation—not to mention developmental and learning disabilities—on environmental pollution. "It's not just a fear thing," he says. "People need to understand there's something they can do."

Integrative medicine has gained much more widespread acceptance since Gaynor started using it a decade and a half ago; there are now two peer-reviewed journals dedicated to the field. But he feels his work won't be done until it's standard care at hospitals throughout the country—especially since many of his patients still travel long distances to seek his alternative approach. He's seen more and more medical schools starting integrative medicine programs and inviting him to speak to students, whose receptiveness to his ideas gives him hope for the future, He's also seen student interest growing every year in his integrative teach­ing at WEILL CORNELL, to the point where many medical students see it as just anoth­er part of the program instead of some touchy-feely afterthought. "The third line of the Hippocratic oath is, 'I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art,'" he says. "There's nothing unscientific or hokey about compassion or wholeness. We have a mind and an intellect to guide us, but we also have a heart to feel people's traumas and help them recover."

And that may be the key to all the alternative therapies Gaynor offers: the ele­ment of hope, of giving patients a sense of control in a terrifying situation. "Dr. Gaynor said to me, 'Those doctors don't even know when they're going to die, so how do they know when you 're going to die?'" Marisa says. "When he said, 'There's so much you can do,' it was like a little flicker of light came on in me. For the first time, I felt some peace."

— Jennifer Armstrong

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