Leader in the Field of Integrative Oncology, Barrie Cassileth, PhD, Dies at 83

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Barrie Cassileth, PhD

Barrie Cassileth, PhD

In 1999, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) President Paul Marks, MD, recruited Barrie Cassileth, PhD, to establish an Integrative Medicine Service that “provided evidence-based complementary therapies that improve patients’ quality of life by alleviating physical and emotional symptoms associated with cancer and its treatments.” Dr. Cassileth led MSK’s program into national prominence, and in 2003, she founded the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO), through which she oversaw the development of the first of a series of integrative oncology clinical practice guidelines. Dr. Cassileth died on February 26, 2022, at the age of 83.

Early Experience With Cancer Helps Shape a Career

Dr. Cassileth was born in Philadelphia on April 22, 1938. She studied humanities and social sciences at Bennington College in Vermont, which she described as “a cauldron of intellectual freedom. My years there molded what I later became.”

While at Bennington, she borrowed an old truck from the school and spent a year in the small rural town of Pownal, Vermont. Dr. Cassileth spent a formative year there teaching art and music in a one-room schoolhouse. During her stay, the mother of two of her students was suffering from terminal cancer. “I helped in her care, doing whatever small things I could. When she died, the overall experience had a profound effect on me,” she said during an interview.

Marriage and a Change of Plans

After graduating from Bennington, Dr. Cassileth entered Albert Einstein University to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. Her plans changed during her third year there when she completed her master’s degree early in order to marry her fiancé, who was headed to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).

“I went with my husband and did my dissertation at the UPenn Comprehensive Cancer Center’s inpatient unit for leukemia patients. At that time, we did a poor job managing adult leukemia,” Dr. Cassileth noted. However, her clinical interaction with dying patients with cancer had a deep effect on her career path, and she wrote several journal articles based on her experiences as well as her first book, The Cancer Patient: Social and Medical Aspects of Care.

After receiving her PhD, Dr. Cassileth remained at UPenn as Assistant Professor, teaching medical sociology. However, after much discussion with the cancer center’s Director, Dr. Cassileth took a turn into uncharted territory, which, in a sense, shaped her future as a pioneer in oncology. “I ended up initiating what I believe was among the first palliative care programs in the academic setting in the United States,” Dr. Cassileth said.

Dr. Cassileth had years of productive research at UPenn, in which she and her associates developed numerous clinical and research programs in patient and family support, medical education, home care and hospice, and the complementary therapies that would eventually lead to the formation of integrative medicine. 

Recruited to Start Prototypical Program

In 1992, Dr. Cassileth moved to North Carolina, where she was appointed Consulting Professor of Community and Family Medicine at Duke. It was a fruitful time, during which she created and served through 1995 as the first editor of the Duke Cancer Report and Adjunct Professor of Oncology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1999, Dr. Cassileth was recruited by MSK’s President, Paul Marks, MD, to create what he termed an “Integrative Medicine” program, which has served since as an international prototype.

“I also agreed to numerous requests to assist the development of such programs around the world. My strong belief in the necessity of helping patients with cancer and family members—as well as physicians and staff—to participate in cancer research spurred me on. It was always clear that patients and family members need more than excellent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and all the new treatments. Top-notch cancer care, including the now-accessible complementary modalities, is a vastly updated new world,” said Dr. Cassileth. 

Dr. Cassileth credited Laurance S. Rockefeller, the philanthropist and long-time supporter of MSK, for convincing the Sloan Kettering leadership that an integrative medicine program was needed at MSK. She noted, “Mr. Rockefeller emphasized that we could no longer take care of only the physical aspects of cancer; we needed to focus on the broader needs of the patient-body-mind-spirit, which he would talk about as all one word.”

“Her persistence, professionalism, caution, and caring allowed a new field to emerge and be accepted by conventional cancer caregivers.”
— Donald Abrams, MD

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While at MSK, Dr. Cassileth promoted research of complementary therapies, and in 2002, she founded the SIO. She was also the founding member of the advisory council to the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine, now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 

“For many years she was the force behind, as well as the face of, integrative oncology. Her persistence, professionalism, caution, and caring allowed a new field to emerge and be accepted by conventional cancer caregivers. It is difficult to estimate the number of patients who have benefited and the career pathways paved through Barrie’s vision. She was also just a very lovely human being,” friend and colleague Donald Abrams, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, told The ASCO Post.

New Era in Oncology 

For Dr. Cassileth, the field of integrative medicine reflected the new era of oncology, one in which our increasing survival rates permit attention to survivor needs.

“Physical and emotional sequelae of treatment were now important clinical issues, especially for patients with cancer undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. The international, research-based field of integrative oncology helps patients with cancer and their families live well, physically and emotionally, during and beyond the struggle of cancer,” she told The ASCO Post in 2017.

Jyothi Gubili, MS, a longtime collaborator noted in remembrance, “At the office, Barrie was very caring; she would make time to stop by our care coordinators’ desks to inquire about how they and their families were doing. Her kindness and warmth will always be remembered.”

Another friend added: “I remember walking down 2nd Avenue in New York City with Barrie and seeing her stop to thank a man in uniform who was picking up trash from the street and emptying trash bins. She told him how much she appreciated his hard work in keeping the streets clean. And she meant every word. She was truly amazing.”

Dr. Cassileth retired from her position as Chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at MSK in 2016 and traded the East Coast for Southern California, to be near her children and grandchildren. She maintained many of her relationships with the colleagues and friends she made along the way of her career in oncology, one that left the field a better place for patients with cancer. 

In addition to her aforementioned first book, The Cancer Patient: Social and Medical Aspects of Care(1979), Dr. Cassileth was the author or editor of many books, including The Alternative Medicine Handbook (1998), PDQ Integrative Oncology: Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care (2005), Herb-Drug Interactions in Oncology (2010), The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care (2011), and Survivorship: Living Well During and After Cancer (2014).

Dr. Cassileth’s first two marriages ended in divorce. Her husband Richard Cooper, MD, a renowned hematologist and oncologist, died in 2016. Survivors include three children from her first marriage, Jodi Cassileth Greenspan of New York City and Wendy Cassileth and Gregory Cassileth, both of Los Angeles; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren.