From the outside, the faceless office building at 22nd Street and Mission looks like a misplaced Soviet ministry, but its blank walls enclose a candlelit warren, a hideaway where women facing tough times can close their eyes and leave behind some of the strains of illness.
Last December the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic opened its doors in San Francisco, offering female cancer patients free alternative treatments to accompany Western cancer therapies. Staffed by professional practitioners who volunteer their time on Friday evenings as well as on Saturdays and Sundays, the clinic provides massage, homeopathy, acupuncture, and other therapies to women who can't afford to pay.
The San Francisco clinic is an offshoot of the Oakland-based Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic, which got started in 1991 and continues to operate five days a week from its location on Telegraph Avenue. The organizers decided to expand into San Francisco in order to cut transit times for current clients as well as to increase the total number of women it could serve.
Beverly Burns, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and clinic cofounder, explains the need for a San Francisco–<\d>based clinic, citing the huge demand for the services in Oakland. "When we first opened, we were amazed at how far people came for treatment.... If you are doing chemo, and you are ill from cancer or ill from the treatment, it is hard to get to us, even with drivers."
In addition to its logistical advantages, Burns says, the SF clinic is a locus for cooperation with public hospitals. "The city and county of San Francisco have worked very hard to orchestrate community and agency involvement. The Department of Public Health and San Francisco General both work with community agencies.... Being in San Francisco will enhance our ability to collaborate and block some of the holes that are opening in the safety net."
Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of hematology-oncology at San Francisco General, believes the CMCC San Francisco will be an important resource for his patients. In addition to his practice at SF General, Dr. Abrams works with cancer patients at UCSF's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, which offers a combination of Western medicine and alternative therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy. "Taking care of women with cancer at SF General, I sometimes feel frustrated that they don't have access to the same kind of complementary care that people at the Osher Center do. Beverly and the people at the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic have taken a big step forward in making those treatments available."
Dr. Abrams is convinced that alternative therapies help to control the side effects of cancer and chemotherapy. "Pretty much every patient I see in my Osher Center practice, I recommend that they use traditional Chinese medicine," he says.
Many patients and providers are eager to spread the word about the benefits that alternative treatments can provide to cancer patients. Sabina (last name withheld) recently switched to the San Francisco Clinic after four years as a client at the Oakland location. A strong believer in alternative therapy, she says, "I know for sure that acupuncture definitely helps. I have experienced it myself."
Along with the physical benefits it provides for its clients, the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic offers a place of emotional support for women who sometimes feel isolated by their illness. "No matter how good a friend is, they will never really know the experience you are having, because they don't have the same illness," Sabina says. "That's the really nice thing about the Maxwell Clinic: There are women there who have the same experience."