A holitstic approach to living with cancer

More than one in three people will, at some point in their lives, develop cancer. The diagnosis is often accompanied by shock, fear, and turmoil. Few people are prepared for the changes that this news will bring to their lives.

As they embark on this journey into unknown territory they will begin to examine different ways of helping them both come to terms with their diagnosis and cope with this new reality.

Many will choose to take a holistic approach to their illness, taking into account their whole being, not just the physical symptoms of their illness. They will consider the psyche, environment, and nutrition and the effects, both positive and negative, these can have on the body as a whole.

Emer Hennelly, a psychotherapist with a special interest in the area of cancer, believes simple steps, such as taking care of yourself, eliminating or reducing stress, and learning new methods of coping, can all help at a time like this.

“Often when I ask a new client, who is either going through treatment or in their recovery period, what is the most stressful thing is their life right now it may not necessarily be the diagnosis,” she says. “Often it can be a strain in a relationship with a partner, an adult child, work related issues or financial matters.”

She believes it is of utmost importance to identify areas of stress and then look at ways of solving or managing these issues.

“I have often talked to clients who have admitted that their cancer diagnosis has given them permission to stop. They may have been under untold stress by being a carer for an elderly parent or partner while holding down a full time job or be in a very stressful job but they had no idea how to stop and access their situation. They got a diagnosis and in the aftermath of treatment realised all they had been going through before they got ill.

“Sometimes a diagnosis offers people an opportunity to unpeel the layers to get to the authentic self and find a more peaceful way of being in the world.”

Recovery period

She says it is very important to look at all areas of your lifestyle in order to put your “best foot forward in the recovery period”.

“Ask yourself what are you doing to attend to your mind, body, soul, and spirit so that there is a balance. Each area is very important. Often times people will go down the optimum nutrition route but are not attending to the stress factors in their life or they may be relaxed and be eating a very poor diet in terms of processed foods. People may be very disconnected from their bodies after a treatment and have issues about how they look which in turn can cause problems with intimacy with their partner. It is extremely important for them to have a safe space where they can voice this and work through it.”

In recent years some people have become disillusioned with religion and may have stopped attending services, she outlines. However, they may not have replaced this practice with any other “spiritual connection”. “So, there is a gap which can leave them with feelings of isolation and confusion. It’s important to check in with yourself and see where you are at.

“When I do an intake with a new client I’ll look at them holistically and see what areas need to be addressed and work closely with the client to achieve goals in order to live a more fulfilling life where you are not merely existing but fully participating and feeling in control. If we look at the mind, body, spirit, and soul in terms of a wheel we need each area to be balanced in order for the wheel to turn effectively.

“We also need to look at integral biology, such as environmental effects on our physical and mental health. Everything we do in our daily lives affects our bodies. For example an uncomfortable working environment can cause stress and tiredness and may lead to anxiety, depression and even heart conditions, in some cases. At home, poor diet, lack of exercise or too much time spent in front of the TV and computer may cause similar problems, too.”

She describes stress as any factor which threatens our physical and mental wellbeing. “Such factors can be imagined [worry about the future] or real [financial problems]. It is not the factor itself that is damaging but how we respond to it. Some people have very busy lives but they manage stress well so therefore it does not have a negative impact whereas others, with even the slightest worry, can spin into a state of anxiety, panic, and loss of concentration.”

Perceived danger

She states that it has been estimated that stress causes 75 per cent of disease. “If we break up the word disease we have dis ease, so dis ease of the mind relates to disease in the body. I always say if the soul or spirit does not express what is happening, the body will do so.”

In the short term, as a response to perceived danger, stress is literally lifesaving, according to the psychotherapist. “If we didn’t feel stress we would not move faster to get out of the way of an approaching car or perform to the best of our abilities to win a sports or talent competition. However in the long term, if a person continues to feel stress in response to external factors but does nothing to remove the cause of the stress or respond to it differently, the stress can be damaging. The body remains in a state of alert and eventually this will have a negative mental and physical effect often leading to what we term burnout.”

Stress can be caused by a number of issues, she says. These can include job insecurity, work related problems, relationship issues (separation, divorce ), grief, anger, worry, or illness. Other potential stressors may be suppressed negative emotions, moving house, pregnancy, financial worries, boredom, loneliness, isolation, and parenting problems.

“Acute symptoms of stress may include headaches, insomnia, palpations, trembling, sweating, recurrent infections, diarrhoea and constipation. Meanwhile chronic symptoms of stress may be depression, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, skin problems, such as psoriasis and eczema, cancer, stroke, heart disease and a general deterioration in health.”

How can stress be combated? Ms Hennelly says while stress itself cannot be “cured” as we will always have threats to our wellbeing, it can be managed.

“It’s not the threat but the way it’s perceived and responded to that is most important. By learning to respond in a healthier way and using relaxation techniques we need to learn how to relax our bodies through breathing work, walking, massage, reflexology, mindfulness, meditation and socialising.”

She says families who are caring for someone with cancer will experience a range of emotions. “Caring for someone close to you can be one of the most stressful and harrowing experiences. It can also be immensely rewarding. In order to be the most effective carer and how to sustain the role will depend on the degree in which you are able to deal with your own feelings about illness, doctors, hospitals, disability and loss and how good you become at looking after yourself.

“It is important for you, the carer to be able to identify your emotional state, the reactions you have gone through and the needs you are currently experiencing. You will go through a range of different emotions and feelings from grief to fear to anger; these are all normal reactions to a diagnosis. It is important to balance your needs with the needs of the person you are caring for. It is vital that the carer has emotional support too and can take time out for a treatment such as massage, reflexology, a walk or a coffee/lunch with friends.”

Steps to aid recovery

Emer Hennelly offers the following simple steps to help people aid their recovery:-

Drink more water. The body is made up of 90 per cent water. It is needed for almost all bodily functions, whether circulation, digestion or excretion. It also lubricates joints and protects organ tissues.

Deep breathe. Be mindful of your breathing. “I feel that breath in all its forms is one of the natural things we always have with us, it sustains us and when we are in pain or in fear or worried or feeling anything negative really, then our breath changes - we tend to hold it, to shorten it, to keep it shallow and in doing so it starves the body and the brain and the flow of energy throughout the body.”

Eat mindfully. Take time to eat your food and try not to do something else while eating. Set time aside for meals and eat slowly and enjoy your food. “These days we are all busy and we tend to cramp in lunch or dinner while on the run or in the middle of a task. It’s so important to give yourself time to eat properly, this is your fuel for life.”

Emer Hennelly, a psychotherapist, grief recovery specialist, massage therap ist and health creation mentor will hold a conference/information evening entitled “The integrative and holistic approach to cancer” on Thursday September 15 from 10am to 6pm at the Rockbarton suite in the Salthill Hotel. There will be a number of guest speakers from the West of Ireland who are involved in healthcare and wellness. There will also be a showcasing of complementary therapies and supplements to support patients during and after a cancer diagnosis. For more information contact Emer at (086 ) 3642886.

 

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