The Making of a Survivor: Give Healing the Space it Needs

January 18, 2019
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“It isn’t for the moment you are stuck that you need courage, but for the long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.” -Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The Healing Path

Survivors are frequently blindsided by the difficult transition from active treatment to life after treatment. There is the expectation that once treatment is over, the experience is over. Unfortunately, this rarely is true. Many survivors struggle with separation anxiety and questions of uncertainty about next steps wondering, “How do I know I’m a survivor?” or “What do I do now?”

When thinking about survivorship, it is useful to think of it as a healing path. Keep in mind that cancer affects “the whole person” and good health is more than the absence of disease. The emotional toll of cancer should not be ignored. Physical healing, as well as emotional and mental recovery, is necessary. 

The word heal comes from the Old English word “haelan” which means to make whole. Optimal health is the whole body in balance. When out of balance, there is a higher risk for illness and disease. Survivors struggle with difficult emotions about thoughts of recurrence. Some cycles of worry and anxiety are expected, but overwhelming feelings about day-to-day life can create unbalance and lead to depression so it’s important to check-in with anxiety.

The Anxiety Toll

A useful first step is to pay careful attention to feelings of anxiety. What does it feel like? How often does it affect relationships, work and overall life? Some common symptoms of anxiety are overwhelming fear, racing heart, intense preoccupation with thoughts, an inability to focus, and procrastination.

There is a clear relationship between anxiety and stress. According to research, roughly 500 genes are engaged by stress and affect systems throughout the body. Stress can’t be eliminated entirely, but there are surprisingly straightforward steps to reduce uncomfortable emotions and relax more. Anxiety can build if it isn’t given attention and directed into some kind of positive action.

Keep Anxiety in Check

1. Recognize what triggers the stress and anxiety (doctor’s appointments, tests, blood work, particular people in your life, etc.)
2. Focus on where the feeling of anxiety is in the body (headaches, stomachaches, etc.)
3. Find tools to move from a fear-based reaction to responding with calmer behavior
4. Limit things that cause upsetting feelings like watching the news or movies about cancer
5. Find someone to talk to who is supportive and understanding
6. Exercise more
7. When anxiety feels overwhelming and ongoing, seek help from a professional counselor

Tools to Explore

Journaling is a powerful tool for processing worries and gaining better control of emotions. Research backs up its powerful health benefits. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist and pioneer of writing therapy, has conducted numerous studies that demonstrate the benefits of expressive writing after trauma. More research surfaces often about the benefits of opening up through writing. If starting a journaling practice seems challenging, there are journaling books written by Pennebaker that make the first steps of putting “pen to paper” easier. Below are ten tips for journaling:
  1. Find the right space to write
  2. Buy a notebook and personalize it with themes of healing and health
  3. Close your eyes and take a few minutes to transition before you begin
  4. Create rituals to stay engaged. Make tea, light a candle or listen to music
  5. Write at the same time every day
  6. Start with writing for 5 – 15 minutes a few days a week, then build up to writing more often and for longer periods
  7. Journaling should be enjoyable, not a chore
  8. Write feelings without editing
  9. Journaling is a process for honest reflection and expressing challenging emotions
  10. Consider how you feel after you journal

Another way to practice reducing anxiety is through breathing exercises. One of the easiest relaxation techniques is to take ten slow, deep breathes in and out from the diaphragm. Breathing deeply kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system. This system triggers the body to secrete hormones to help decrease blood pressure and heart rate and induce a relaxation response. Breathing helps us to feel calm and improves mood, and can easily be practiced anywhere. The practice of yoga also focuses on breathing techniques and can relax the mind and body making someone less prone to health problems.

Take Advantage of Swedish Cancer Institute’s Survivorship Program

Keeping company with those who make you better can make a big difference in your mental health. The SCI Survivorship Clinic is available for one-on-one support for patients recently out of treatment as well as those further out. Nurse practitioners can answer lingering concerns and help set-up a personalized care plan that meets you where you are in your journey. Appointments are available both in-person and via tele-health. Tele-health is a convenient way to visit with a practitioner via the internet using a smartphone, tablet or computer with a camera, and has no additional costs than an in-person visit. Contact 206-320-8266 to learn more or schedule an appointment at the First Hill, Issaquah, or Edmonds campus.

Connect With Other Survivors

The saying “to know the road ahead, ask those coming back,” affirms the countless benefits of being with other survivors at different stages of healing. Some patients may be reluctant to join a group, but interacting with other survivors offers a safe space, unique bond and opportunity for growth, support and inspiration. The resources in this newsletter offer a variety of programs including classes and support groups.

If you are looking for support in the community, check out Team Survivor Northwest at https://teamsurvivornw.org/, an organization providing fitness and health programs that enable women cancer survivors to take an active role in their ongoing healing. Cancer Lifeline also helps cancer patients and survivors build strength through support groups, classes in nutrition, exercise, personal expression and stress reduction, and personalized emotional support. Read their online catalogue at http://cancerlifeline.org/, for classes at various locations around the Puget Sound.

Finding a combination of ways to build up physical and mental strength is best and takes time. Survivorship is a lifetime journey and commitment. Focus on reasonable behavioral changes and take it slow. Try making shorter goals and including rewards. When trying something new, aim for on-going, buildable good habits. Most importantly, remember perfection isn’t sustainable.

For more information, contact Patti Kwok, ARNP at 206-215-6558

Topics: Cancer