Q&A: A doctor who sees healing in plants

Name: Dr. Donald Abrams

Age: 65

City: San Francisco

Position: Oncologist, integrative medicine specialist


Dr. Donald Abrams

J.: You hold several positions, including chief of hematology and oncology at San Francisco General Hospital. But you’re also a cancer and integrative medicine specialist at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Mount Zion. So let’s start with that. Just what is integrative medicine?

Dr. Donald Abrams: It’s a balance between conventional and complementary treatments.  As an integrative oncologist, I embrace less high-tech means at the same time as I endorse the latest immune checkpoint inhibitor therapies. Not too many oncologists are trained to practice integrative medicine. Using all the tools in the toolbox is important.

You’re scheduled to give an April 6 Commonwealth Club talk in Mill Valley on “Mushrooms to Cannabis: Using Nature to Heal.” What will that be about?

I’ll talk about my work with cancer patients, focusing on supplements, including mushrooms and cannabis. I tell my patients that cancer is like a weed. Their oncologists pay attention to the weed while I take care of the soil so we can make it as inhospitable as possible to the growth of the weed.

Many people know about marijuana’s medical benefits … but mushrooms?

Most of the research on medicinal mushrooms has been done in Asia, where mushrooms have been used as medicine for centuries. Clearly mushrooms have biologic activity: You can eat one kind and have a psychedelic experience or eat another kind and die.

How does cannabis help patients?

My patients see benefits from cannabis for nausea, vomiting, pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia and loss of appetite. We don’t have hard and fast evidence, because it’s difficult to do clinical trials with the plant, but from my experience over the years it seems like it is a useful medicine.

What drew you to this work?

I have been an oncologist for 35 years. At the beginning of my training, AIDS came out of the blue, and I became a champion of alternative therapies when no conventional therapies worked. In 1992, I began to investigate the possibility of studying cannabis as a treatment for AIDS wasting syndrome, and that gave me a strong appreciation for plants as medicine.

Has conventional Western medicine embraced integrative medicine?

More than 60 medical centers now are members of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine and Health, and the Society for Integrative Oncology is planning its 13th annual international meeting. So integrative medicine is certainly becoming more accepted and mainstream, although some conventional providers continue to be leery of its benefits.

What does the ideal diet look like?

An organic, plant-based diet with antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory whole foods. When some people learn they have cancer, they say they will juice everything or sprinkle broccoli powder in a smoothie. That’s not it. They need to eat whole foods, and it’s best if they are organic, because a plant grown outdoors organically has to protect itself, and to do that it makes chemicals. Those same chemicals are the ones that benefit us.

You grew up in Cleveland. Did your Jewish upbringing influence your career choice?

My family wanted me to be a rabbi, but my temple folded after my bar mitzvah. As the first-born son in a Jewish family, a doctor was the natural next choice. I think my upbringing and those gifts that my family thought would make me a good rabbi now serve me well in my caring for my patients.

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Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.