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Barrie R. Cassileth, Who Transformed Cancer Care, Dies at 83

By advocating for acupuncture and other treatments, she helped countless patients weather the pain of chemotherapy and radiation.

Barrie R. Cassileth, whose efforts to bring treatments like acupuncture and massage into mainstream cancer care helped countless patients weather the pain of chemotherapy, radiation and terminal illness, died on Feb. 26 at an assisted-living home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 83.

Her granddaughter Rachel Greenspan said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Cassileth, who founded the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, drew a bright line between alternative medicine, which she often dismissed as quackery, and what she called complementary medicine, which attempts to alleviate the symptoms of cancer and its treatments.

Such care might also be casually considered “alternative,” like acupuncture, massage and herbs, but Dr. Cassileth insisted that the difference lay in the science: The approaches had been rigorously studied, and they showed actual medical benefits.

And, just as important, she never offered them in place of conventional medicine, let alone as a cure, a practice she called “grotesquely outrageous” in The New York Times in 1998.

“It is malpractice on the part of public health services to offer an untested, unscientific method as a real alternative,” she said.

Dr. Cassileth first came into the public eye as a sharp critic of alternative medicine in the late 1970s and ’80s, when nontraditional approaches to cancer were the stuff of best-selling books and daytime talk shows.

A study that she and several colleagues published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1985 showed that differences in personality among patients with advanced cancer did not change outcomes. Patients who showed grit and determination, they found, died just as quickly as patients who showed stoic resignation to the disease.

“For every anecdote about a cancer patient with a good attitude who lived, I can give you 200 about those who had good attitudes and died,” she told The Los Angeles Times that year.

She was especially concerned about licensed medical practitioners who advised their patients to seek treatment outside the mainstream. She raised the alarm when a survey conducted in the early 1990s showed that 9 percent of cancer patients did not pursue conventional treatments — a number that later included Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, who at first tried to fight the disease with dietary supplements and juices.

“He had the only kind of pancreatic cancer that is treatable and curable,” she told USA Today in 2013. “He essentially committed suicide.”

But Dr. Cassileth was also quick to note the limits of her own research, and to assert her openness to the possible efficacy of treatments outside the mainstream. She was both a member the American Cancer Society’s Subcommittee on Questionable Methods of Cancer Management and an adviser to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine, now called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

She took a historical perspective. Cancer was once considered incurable, and so the focus of treatment was limited to palliative care, helping to ease a patient’s pain. But with the rise of chemotherapy and radiation and the growing possibility of survival, comfort and quality of life took a back seat. Her mission, she said, was to bring that back, using evidence-based, noninvasive treatments.

“She was a legend in our field,” Dr. Ting Bao, the director of integrative breast oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering, said in an interview.

Barrie Joyce Rabinowitz was born on April 22, 1938, in Philadelphia. Her father, Albert Rabinowitz, owned a company that manufactured socks; later, he and her mother, Rosalind (Kaizen) Rabinowitz, ran a company that designed and installed kitchens.

She is survived by her siblings, Stephen and Ruth Rabinowitz; her daughters, Jodi Cassileth Greenspan and Wendy Cassileth; her son, Gregory Cassileth; and six grandchildren.

Dr. Cassileth attended Bennington College in Vermont and spent a summer teaching art in Pownal, a village near the Massachusetts border. Working out of a one-room schoolhouse, she befriended the parents of two of her students. The mother, Ms. Rabinowitz soon learned, had terminal cancer, and the experience of watching her suffer focused her interests on helping to alleviate such pain.

She graduated with a degree in social sciences in 1959, a year after marrying Peter Cassileth. They later divorced. Her second marriage, to H. Taylor Vaden, a communications executive, also ended in divorce. Her third husband, Richard Cooper, a noted hematologist who was known as Buz, died in 2016.

Dr. Cassileth received a master’s degree in psychology from Albert Einstein University and a Ph.D. in medical sociology in 1978 from the University of Pennsylvania, where Peter Cassileth, her husband at the time, was an oncologist.

As part of her doctoral program, she worked closely with adult leukemia patients. After being hired at Pennsylvania as an assistant professor, she helped establish one of the first palliative cancer care programs in the country.

She later taught at Duke, Harvard and the University of North Carolina before being approached in 1999 by Memorial Sloan Kettering, where one of the benefactors, Laurance Rockefeller, was leading an effort to create an integrative care program.

What started as a one-woman show in one small office grew to a staff of about 60 people, with its own four-story building, largely thanks to Dr. Cassileth’s leadership. In 2003, she was the founding president of the Society for Integrative Oncology.

Today, thousands of cancer patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and in similar programs nationwide, benefit from complementary care — the result, Dr. Cassileth always insisted, of advances in conventional medical care.

“Quality of life has only become an issue,” she told The Washington Post in 2000, “since enough patients have been around long enough to worry about quality of life.”

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