New chemotherapy unit at Braemar opens

The fear of cancer treatment sometimes gets in the way of healing.

That from Anna Goodwin, who will head Braemar Hospital’s day chemotherapy unit, due to open in January next year.

An American oncologist, she came to New Zealand three years ago to take up a position as a locum oncologist with the Waikato District Health Board, a position she held until March this year. Following that appointment, she was approached by Braemar to establish the Waikato’s first private chemotherapy treatment centre.

She says the position fulfills two aims: to work with good people and to work in New Zealand. “”I have loved New Zealand and thought about living here since the age of 12″, she says.”I am grateful to the DHB for giving me a chance to make this dream a reality”. She says her experience at the DHB also allowed her to see her niche in the community and the need to expand the services available in the Waikato to improve patient access.

It was inevitable Anna would become a cancer doctor. She lost her best friend to osteosarcoma, a highly aggressive bone cancer, at age eight and her grandparents died of the disease. She says she knew from the day she entered med school she was going to be an oncologist. She completed her oncology training at the University of Alabama Birmingham and worked as an assistant professor at the university doing research into sickle cell disease for two years before going into private practice. She enjoyed an excellent reputation and ran a very busy solo private practice for 15 years before coming to New Zealand, often seeing up to 500 new patients with cancer or blood disorders every year.

Her approach to her work today is influenced by the experiences of her many patients, and the way they deal with the disease. Especially the way they deal with their fear. She says there is often more fear surrounding treatment than of the disease itself. “That sometimes gets in the way of healing because we can’t promote wellness and fear all in the same breath.” 

She says where patients have outlived all the prognostications and had good quality life, the common thread is “their ability to overcome fear and to find meaning and purpose in their journey.” That is not meant to put the blame on patients for their lack of healing. “But at the same time, I think it is important for them to realise they do have some power that far exceeds the framework of what we can explain in mainstream medical approaches.

“Patients often get no guidance about options beyond mainstream oncology practices. I’m trying to bridge the gap. I’d like to give people sound advice based on evidence within medical literature but also an understanding of what they’re up against with orthodox medicine. I prefer an integrative approach that incorporates nutrition, exercise and mental and spiritual energy that affect people’s coping mechanisms. These are extremely important not only in how long we live but also the quality of our lives.”

This is very much in line with the Ministry of Health. One of its goals is to promote understanding of an integrative approach to cancer treatment not only to help patients but for cost containment. “It costs less to empower people to take care of themselves and to have a more holistic approach to their management of any disease, especially cancer.”

Anna believes it is essential that people not completely abdicate control of their lives to medical orthodoxy. “Everyone should recognise the importance of what a patient does when they leave the clinic. They have to choose the right foods that are going to be health-promoting and not deprive them of health. We know that exercise can reduce breast cancer and colon cancer recurrence by up to a 25 per cent; we know Vitamin D has a huge impact on cancer survival and we know that continuing to smoke has a huge impact on surviving most cancers. Most physicians incorporate some recommendations, but often, we as physicians are a bit paternalistic.”

Knowledge and support are empowering, she says. “If we do nothing more than start a conversation about these things, that has to be constructive.”

She says the range of options facing cancer patients today is often vast and there sometimes appears to be conflicting advice from specialists. “Medicine is so specialised. We are like the proverbial 12 blind men all feeling different parts of the elephant and describing the whole as one of its parts. For patients, it can seem overwhelming.”

Her goal, she says, is to have discussions with patients to “help them out of fear-based decisions. I encourage them to balance what their fears are. If they are more fearful about treatment than the disease itself, sometimes I think treatment is not for them. People need to be empowered to make that decision for themselves, not for their doctor, their family, but for themselves.”

Anna Goodwin says people’s attitudes towards life-threatening diseases such as cancer are often influenced by their understanding of their own mortality. “In the West we tend to think of death as something we won’t ever have to face, whereas in Eastern religions you have to think about death first before you can order your priorities in life. You can’t live a good life without recognising first that you are in a physical form temporarily.”

There are only so many things that cause us to leave our physical forms – cancer is not necessarily the worst. It is one of the few diseases that allows people to be in control of their lives right up until the end for the most part. It gives them an awareness of their temporal nature so they can make decisions they need to make in their life’s journey that they might otherwise not make.”

She is currently writing a book titled Rethinking Cancer to help patients move beyond their fears related to cancer, death, and even life. It will help people engage in better self care and provide practical hints on diet, nutrition, supplements, and spiritual practice.