Zen and the art of healing cancer

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Nidhi Kumar, MD

Saint Peter’s Healthcare System launched the first phase of its new cardio oncology program in January. The cardio oncology program is designed to protect the hearts of patients undergoing cancer therapy.

The field of cardio oncology represents a true partnership between oncologists, cardiologists and primary care providers in the treatment of cancer patients. With many forms of cancer, the risk of death from a cardiovascular cause exceeds that of tumor recurrence, so paying close attention to the heart is paramount for better health.

Some chemotherapy agents put cancer patients at risk for developing heart disease. The goal of this program is to decrease these potential cardiac complications. The cardio oncology program at Saint Peters focuses on overall wellness and heart health.

As such, it is designed to detect and address issues early in treatment so adjustments can be made to protect the heart and prevent disease. And Saint Peter’s treats the whole patient, not just the cancer. It is well known that by using advanced technology, early detection and patient education, it is possible to lower risk and better protect the heart.

Saint Peter’s is the first hospital in central New Jersey to create a center dedicated solely to the cardiac imaging of cancer patients. By adding a technology called “Strain imaging” to an echocardiogram that is routinely performed during cancer therapy, doctors are able to detect small changes in heart function much earlier than what otherwise would be detected on a conventional echocardiogram. Using this new technology is essential because the data from Strain imaging provides invaluable information to physicians who are caring for cancer patients. If issues are detected early, they can be addressed before they become problems that effect cancer treatment and overall patient outcomes.

Saint Peter’s realizes that technology is only one piece of the healing equation. Patients undergoing cancer treatment spend a lot of time away from the comforts of their home.

In response, Saint Peter’s set out to create a special environment in which these tests will take place in order to promote wellness and inspire healing.

Our goal was to offer our patients more just than another waiting room, because typical waiting rooms are often impersonal, uncomfortable and at times anxiety provoking. Instead, we created a space to promote healing through art. Art can be a great refuge from the emotions associated with illness.”

Saint Peter’s enlisted the help of graphic designer Vikkal Parikh and artist Cindy Muglia to create original artwork for the room where women will relax before testing. Saint Peter’s traded stiff chairs for comfortable furniture with an emphasis on beauty and design. The ultimate goal is to provide patients with an experience that inspires and uplifts them in order to help them heal.

Going a step further, in addition to the usual waiting room accoutrements such as magazines, the space offers its patients art supplies for the creation of their own artwork as they wait. Medical professionals are beginning to recognize the role that art plays in the healing process. Art can help people process experiences that are often too difficult to put into words. Studies have found that patients can explore the meaning of their disease, gain greater insight and express their feelings in a symbolic manner through art therapy.

Nidhi Kumar, MD, is a cardiologist and medical director of women’s health at Saint Peters’ Healthcare System.

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