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Functional Medicine and Cancer

Functional Medicine and Cancer

March 4, 2016 | Author: Susan Silberstein PhD
Doctor-Consultation - Beat Cancer Blog

A few weeks ago, I received this email from a Cornell student pursuing a medical career who had attended one of my lectures:

Dear Dr. Silberstein,

My name is Steven Henick, and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with me yesterday during the Juice Plus Seminar about going into medicine and introducing me to functional medicine. I truly enjoyed your presentation yesterday and I learned a lot about how, as a physician in the future, I can potentially prevent my future patients from developing diseases through eating foods like crucifers and alkaline foods while avoiding others such as acidic and microwaved foods. It was a pleasure to meet you….

How gratifying to see young medical professionals move in the direction of preventive, nutritional and functional medicine!

What is Functional Medicine?

Functional medicine is a relatively new field whose clinical approach to disease mirrors’s own holistic philosophy of cancer. According to the Institute for Functional Medicine (, “Functional medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership…. By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, functional medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. Functional medicine practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease.”

Functional medicine represents an evolution in the practice of medicine to better meet healthcare needs of the 21st century. Modern society, especially in the West, has experienced a major increase in the incidence of complex, chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders. However, the allopathic system of medicine practiced by most physicians is oriented toward acute care, urgent care, and the diagnosis and treatment of trauma or short-term illness, such as appendicitis or a broken leg. Physicians prescribe drugs or perform procedures to treat the immediate problem or symptom, and preventive care largely involves little more than vaccinations and diagnostic screenings.

Unfortunately, this acute-care approach to medicine lacks the proper methodology and tools for preventing and treating complex chronic diseases. In most cases, this approach does not take into account the biochemical individuality of each patient, his or her environmental exposures to toxins, or diet and lifestyle factors that have a direct influence on risk for and outcome of chronic disease. Most doctors are not adequately trained to assess the underlying causes of complex, chronic conditions and to apply strategies such as nutrition, diet, and exercise to prevent or treat these illnesses in their patients. Functional medicine practitioners are specially trained in these areas.

Hallmarks of Functional Medicine

Functional medicine involves understanding the origins, prevention, and treatment of chronic disease by considering a “complex web of interactions in the patient’s history, physiology, and lifestyle that can lead to illness.” Hallmarks of a functional medicine approach include:

  • Patient-centered care
  • Health promotion, beyond just the absence of disease
  • Individual- not protocol-driven treatment plans
  • Integrative, science-based approach to healthcare
  • Attention to internal (mind, body, and spirit) factors
  • Attention to external (physical and social environment) factors
  • Integration with best medical practices

Functional medicine integrates traditional western medical practices with “alternative,” “complementary” or “integrative” medicine.  Practitioners focus on prevention through diet and lifestyle, use sophisticated laboratory testing and other diagnostic tools, and prescribe combinations of drugs and/or botanical medicines, nutritional supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programs, and stress management techniques.

Cancer and Functional Medicine

Centuries ago, famed medieval physician Moses Maimonides stated that the doctor should not treat the disease but the patient suffering from it. Similarly, I have often said that cancer should not only be approached in anatomical terms that focus on removing the symptom, but also – and especially – in physiological terms that focus on how the body functions. In fact, repairing body function often can often reverse cancer symptoms and resolve the cancer process. For that reason, functional medicine practitioners are among my favorite health professionals to whom to make referrals, and fortunately, in recent years I have encountered more and more doctors trained in and practicing that type of medicine.

Often cancer patients seek from referrals to holistic or integrative oncologists — but such doctors are very rare indeed.  Instead, I suggest that these patients create their own integrative programs by (1) consulting a conventional oncologist to monitor their progress and treat their cancer if necessary, (2) taking advantage of the educational and lifestyle coaching services of counselors and (3) engaging the services of holistic practitioners specializing in functional medicine or other similar approaches. To find a certified functional medicine specialist near you, visit

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