Wednesday, May 26, 2010

the mind is a powerful thing

I just got back from the biggest medical meeting in our industry, the annual International Institute for Functional Medicine Symposium.  I was so excited to go to this because it was the first time I've gotten to attend as a professional--I've been several times when I was a child with my parents.  But this time was different because I was in the field myself and interested in whatever topic they'd pick.  And what do you know, the topic just happens to be appropriate.  The topic this year was Confronting Cancer as a Chronic Disease.

It was an intense week of lectures and working the booth, but I soaked in every bit of it.  The symposium began with a morning long lecture by Dr. Jeffery Bland, a pioneer in this field, and an absolutely brilliant man.  Listening to him talk is mesmorizing as he can synthesize and deliver information like you wouldn't believe. 

As the morning was winding up I found myself overwhelmed with emotion.  Now I know those of you who know me aren't surprised, but I was.  I was surprised at how a lecture, whose content was scientific, intellectual, and not at all directed at me, seemed to hit a deeply personal chord.  And it was then that it struck me that I am a cancer survivor and that does really change a person.  Not so much on the outside.  You see me, and I am the same old me.  But something has changed inside.  My family and I have been through a traumatic experience this year and have survived.  Yet the fear of its return seems to be always on the outskirts of my mind. 

There were so many high points to the meeting.  The functional and integrative medicine approach is to find ways to work in conjunction with established allopathic medical treatments of cancer, while working towards preventing relapse once the cancer is gone. The environmental impact on cancer development was discussed at great lengths. And it just so happens that this was published days before the conference. 

I could go on about all the great scientific pearls I acquired from the meeting, but when I sat down tonight to write this, I intended to write about one lecture in particular-- "Cancer's Impact on the Mind"  by Anne Coscarelli, PhD.

I have to say that it was the most moving lecture of the entire meeting as I felt like she was up there on stage speaking to me, and giving me permission to be feeling the thoughts that I've been feeling these past months.  It is okay to admit that this was hard--physically, yes, of course.  But emotionally too.  And as she said these words..."the journey does not end when treatment ends"  I breathed a sigh of relief to know that I was not alone. 

When I was almost done with chemotherapy, and trying to decide if I should continue, I became obsessed with searching for other Hodgkin's Lymphoma patient blogs.  I even joined one of the online support groups just so I could ask someone a question.  I had avoided all of that prior to this because I just didn't want to know how bad it could get. 

I remember one blog so clearly.  She wrote a whole post on what it was like to be in her shoes.  And I liked it.  There was so much I could relate to. 

So my rendition to you, and to the other readers who may find this blog one day who are going through this, is this--I'll summarize what this psychologist said to me during that hour. 

The diagnosis and treatment of cancer disrupts psychological well-being.  It can solicit anxiety and depression, loss of control, change in independence/dependence, sense of self-esteem and mastery, and leave you with uncertainty and vulnerability specifically surrounding fear of recurrence, fear of death (I never felt this way except in the very beginning), and fear of secondary effects from the treatment itself, i.e. menopause, heart and lung decline, secondary tumors, and shortened life-span.

Prevalence of distress by cancer site listed Hodgkin's Lymphoma #3 of 14 cancers studied ,third to lung and brain cancer. I am guessing it is this high because of the age group this cancer affects.

Fear of recurrence is prevalent, and is described as the largest concern among cancer survivors. (now, this seems like common sense, and you don't need some psychologist telling you this.  But when I've been living a great cancer-free life full of normal activities and love, and this annoying feeling is still in the back of my mind almost constantly--yes, I feel it is appropriate to mention.)

She gave a great example of this fear.  A patient of hers, while in art therapy class, completed a painting that had beautiful trees, flowers, and blue sky.  Yet there was the presence of a few dark clouds and blackbirds.  "Life is good after cancer treatment and the tree is strong, but there are still dark clouds hovering and those annoying black birds."

She talked about post-traumatic stress disorder but I won't go into it much here as I don't feel like I have this.  For those of you who do, know that you are not alone.

Cancer diagnosis and treatment can disrupt your physical status, your social network, your sexual health, your reproductive health, your financial and work status, and can raise existential and spiritual questions such as  why me?  did I do something wrong?  is there a lesson in this?  how can I use this to change my life?  what is the meaning of life?

What I thought was interesting is that she mentioned the new stressful situations that are introduced by this diagnosis.   We now have to think about medical procedures and hospitalizations, frequent medical appointments, treatments and side-effects, medical decision making (WHICH IS VERY DIFFICULT AND STRESSFUL!). We have to wait for test results--or the so called "scan-xiety".  There are health insurance stressors, the fear of recurrence, and the late effects of survivors.  In some cases, coping with the dying process comes into play.

The good news is that she presented MANY studies talking about the effects of stress-reduction techniques, the development of good coping skills, spirituality, and a positive outlook really DO statistically significantly affect outcome in regards to decreasing chance of relapse and recurrence. As do those who seek the help of therapists or support groups (which I am considering).

So there is hope!!  The mind is a powerful thing, and it is okay to allow yourself to realize you need help in controlling it.

I have started the practice already.  Each time the strong pang of worry strikes me, which is often as I am sitting in anticipation of my next PET scan in three weeks, I work hard to quench that worry, grasp it, and exhale it.  And I feel good for a bit.  And then it happens again, and I exhale.  

We will get through

So my deep appreciation goes to Dr. Coscarelli and her lecture. 

Thanks for reading this was a long one!!