How Northwell is improving patient outcomes with special 15-minute sessions

Mariah Taylor June 13th, 2023

New York City-based Northwell Health is reducing pain and stress for breast cancer patients by providing five free 15-minute sessions of reflexology, reiki or massage.

The sessions are conducted by holistic nurse Joanne Christophers, RN, who’s been practicing for 47 years. About 22 years into her career, she decided to formally study Chinese medicine and other holistic arts after seeing the way it improved patient experience.

“Integrative therapy is really the best of modern medicine and complementary medicine,” Ms. Christophers told Becker’s.

Ms. Christophers, who works at Northwell Wellness Center four days out of the week, travels to the clinic every Tuesday to see cancer patients. Inside an exam room, she plays calming music and sets up electric candles to create a relaxing environment. Patients see her after completing their radiation treatment for the day. The first thing Ms. Christophers asks patients is to rate their pain and stress. Then she asks what they do for self-care. Some have answers like yoga, meditation and exercise, while others don’t do anything, she said. For those who haven’t started a self-care routine, Ms. Christophers teaches them a five-minute breathing meditation.

Then it’s on to whatever the patient would like. Ms. Christophers said most patients request reflexology — which involves applying pressure to the soles of the feet or palms — or a shoulder massage.

“The results are really more than I hoped for,” Ms. Christophers said. “I thought, ‘well this will be nice. It’s almost like they get a little spa treatment after their radiation,’ but it’s so much more than that. Patients tell me they felt an improvement in their stress and pain levels. Most of them said it helped them get through the radiation treatment — knowing at the end of their treatment, they’re going to come and see me and be able to relax.”

Ms. Christophers said the sessions are especially helpful for patients with neuropathy from chemotherapy.

The sessions make radiation for cancer a less stressful experience, Heather Zinkin, MD, a radiation oncologist and chief of radiation medicine at Huntington (N.Y.) Hospital, told Becker’s.

“My philosophy has always been to treat the whole person, not just focus on the breast,” Dr. Zinkin said. “We offer patients with breast cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but equally important components for patients is to empower them with things they can control, such as nutrition, exercise, stress reduction and good sleep habits.”

Dr. Zinkin has obtained certificates in nutrition in order to better counsel patients. “Most oncologists are not knowledgeable about this. We’re not trained so we have to get that information ourselves.”

Many women come to the clinic five days a week for radiation, and it is very important they have a positive experience, she said. Although Northwell has a wellness center for patients, it is thirty minutes from the clinic.

Thanks to money donated by “a grateful patient,” they were able to arrange for Ms. Christophers to come to the clinic once a week. The free sessions have been provided for a year now.  “It helps tremendously. We have documented significant reductions in stress and pain, and an improvement in energy,” Dr. Zinkin said.

Both Dr. Zinkin and Ms. Christophers hope other centers will begin offering similar services at their cancer clinics.

“The biggest thing is that everyone in this office knows what I do and they promote it,” Ms. Christophers said. “They ask patients, ‘have you seen Joanne?’ Every once in a while, I get someone who’s hesitant to try something strange or that they haven’t heard of, but when they finally come and see me, they’re like ‘oh my gosh, I could have done this last week!'”

Dr. Zinkin added that the staff is always excited when Ms. Christophers has some extra time to treat them too.