Tribute to Barrie Cassileth, PhD 

Founding President of the Society for Integrative Oncology

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Founding Chief of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) Integrative Medicine Service (IMS) First Laurance S. Rockefeller Chair in Integrative Medicine.

Founding Member of the Advisory Council to the National Institute of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine, now the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

Member, National and the NY–NJ Regional Boards of the American Cancer Society

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Dr. Barrie Cassileth, founding president of the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO). “Dr. Cassileth was one of the most elegant, hardworking, and caring women I have ever met,” Ting Bao, MD, DABMA, MS, the director of Integrative Breast Oncology at MSK and Immediate Past-President of SIO, said of her mentor. “It is amazing how much the field of integrative medicine has developed over the past twenty years; this progress would have not been possible without her. We will all miss her greatly.”

From the beginning days of the Society in 2003, Dr. Cassileth sowed the seeds of research, education, international outreach, and the value of the patient voice, which grew into the thriving SIO of 2022. The Society is still prioritizing these goals as it leads the way towards comprehensive, evidence-informed, integrative oncology care to improve the lives of people with cancer worldwide.  

Dr. Cassileth was also the founding Chief of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) Integrative Medicine Service (IMS) and the first Laurance S. Rockefeller Chair in Integrative Medicine. “Dr. Cassileth had great courage and vision,” said Jun J. Mao, MD, MSCE, the current Chief of Integrative Medicine at MSK and SIO Past President, who also described how Dr. Cassileth’s seminal work in clinical programming and research opened doors for the field of evidence-informed integrative oncology.

Importantly, Dr. Cassileth oversaw the development of the first of a series of integrative oncology clinical practice guidelines, which continue to be developed today by SIO in collaboration with mainstream organizations such as the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO). As Dr. Cassileth explained in a 2017 ASCO Post interview, “My strong belief in the necessity of helping patients and family members, as well as physicians and staff, 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.”

Born in Philadelphia, Dr. Cassileth attended Bennington College in Vermont, which she described as “a cauldron of intellectual freedom.” She earned a PhD in medical sociology at the University of Pennsylvania while working in the UPenn Comprehensive Cancer Center’s inpatient unit for people with leukemia, where she was deeply affected by her interaction with patients who were in the end-stages of the disease. It was at UPenn that she also initiated the first palliative care program that included psychosocial therapies in an academic setting in the US.  

After a period of years in North Carolina, where she was appointed Consulting Professor of Community and Family Medicine at Duke, she was recruited in 1999 by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York City to develop an integrative medicine program. This program, the Integrative Medicine Service at MSK, still offers complementary therapies to inpatients at the main MSK hospital as well as outpatient services and is still conducting practice-changing research in integrative oncology. 

It was partly the need for scientifically robust clinical research supporting the use of complementary therapies to manage symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment that inspired Dr. Cassileth to found the Society for Integrative Oncology in 2003. She invited like-minded pioneers in research who were also committed to improving the lives of people with cancer. These fellow integrative medicine research pioneers became the founding members of SIO and its first presidents, David Rosenthal, MD; Debu Tripathy, MD; Peter Johnstone, MD; and Lorenzo Cohen, PhD.  

During her long career, Dr. Cassileth published several books, from The Alternative Medicine Handbook: The Complete Reference Guide to Alternative and Complementary Therapies in 1998 to The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care in 2011, and, in 2014, Survivorship: Living Well During and After Cancer. 

Next year, SIO will celebrate its Twentieth Anniversary at the 20th International Conference in Banff, Alberta. Today, as we carry forward the mission of SIO, we gratefully offer this tribute to Dr. Barrie Cassileth, the kind, brilliant, and visionary founding president of the Society for Integrative Oncology.

 

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