I am reading Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book at the moment, Man’s Search For Meaning. Heavy reading? I guess it is, in one way. But I am so inspired by people’s stories that speak of greatness. Because they can teach us so much, can’t they. This book is Dr Frankl’s autobiographical account of his imprisonment during World War II. And he talks about how life in a concentration camp could be called a ‘provisional existence’. With no known end date to their imprisonment, some prisoners were unable to hold on to future goals. They simply stopped living for the future. And without a future and without a goal, the decay set in. In mind and body. And what struck me is how similar this experience can be to the experience of cancer. Because sometimes it feels like there is no end, doesn’t it. Treading water. An uncertain future. Life on hold.

I woke the other night thinking about how hard it can be to keep living with a dark shadow hanging overhead. And there are days it can be tough, I know. In the struggle to survive, Dr Frankl describes how  easy it became to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, ‘opportunities which really did exist’. Pretty amazing, huh! That the horror of a concentration camp could secretly hold opportunities for something better. But it happens all the time, doesn’t it. Strangely, it seems that in these most difficult of circumstances, we often find the opportunity to grow. Because it’s only when things are tough that we can realise how strong we really are, isn’t it. The difficult stuff gives us the chance to develop our inner strength. And that is an incredible feeling, isn’t it. To know how strong and capable we really are. It dawned on me we’d be a bunch of wusses if life were always easy.

So thank God, they finally say ‘living with cancer’. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. Living. Living with a challenge, yes. But living all the same. And it seems that when we acknowledge and accept the possibilities – all of them – and remind ourselves that we are okay, right here, right now, it somehow frees us to truly keep on living. And it’s important to keep living, isn’t it. To resist the urge to put life on hold ‘for next year’. Because this is the only life we’ve got. And it’s only when we define this as ‘bad’ that we run the risk of putting our life on hold. Because if we step back and look from another angle, it just may be that the experience of cancer can be a wake up call to do something different for ourselves. To finally give ourselves permission to do those things we have always wanted to do. To live for ourselves for a time, rather than for others. To heal our lives. An opportunity to do something special for ourselves, just for us…

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I must confess I went through a Give Way sign the other day. It was 5.30am, dark and I was in unfamiliar territory. As I followed the curve in the road, I could have sworn I was on a roundabout and had the right of way. After all everyone knows Canberra is full of roundabouts and the airport is no exception. It’s full of them! I was lucky the other driver saw me and gave the horn a blast. But for the whole day, I couldn’t work out what his problem was. It was a roundabout after all, or was it?

My curiosity got the better of me and I went back to check it out in daylight. And then I saw it. The Give Way sign. And I realised with a sinking feeling that while most of the intersections around the airport terminal are roundabouts, despite the curve, this one is not. I gave thanks to the other driver for being more aware than I was. For seeing things differently. I was so sure it was a roundabout, that I was driving with this blinkered mindset. I simply didn’t entertain any other possibilities. They weren’t even on my radar. And despite the evidence in front of me, my self-imposed blinkers prevented me from seeing the reality of the situation. But it was there for others to see and it was only my mindset that blocked me from it.

We talk about this phenomena during the Embracing Chemo programme. How we can approach chemo and cancer locked into a particular mindset, a particular set of beliefs that do not let us see the other, often more positive, possibilities. Many people don’t realise these beliefs affect our decisions and our physiology. Isn’t it interesting that our beliefs can create much of our experience. Because there are many possibilities in life, aren’t there. There for our choosing, if only we could see them.

Many people don’t realise that stretching our minds can be one of the most proactive things we can do to help ourselves make the experience of cancer and cancer treatment that much easier.

It drives me crazy when people say something is not scientific as if it’s a reason not to try something. When the admiralty began handing out citrus to sailors to prevent scurvy, they didn’t know the science of why it worked, only that it did. And there are many things in life we are yet to understand, aren’t there?. I look at it this way – science is just the limit of our understanding about how things work, not whether or not they do. And our understanding is limited, isn’t it?. That’s what makes this world such an interesting place. How boring it would be if we knew it all.

That aside, I love research because it opens up the possibility for how things could be. I came across a mouse study recently that involved two groups of transgenic mice. That’s just a fancy name for mice that have been genetically altered so they carry genes for particular traits or that make us more susceptible to certain diseases. Because some of the mice go on to express the genes, they help scientists to study what happens in different disease processes when you change the environment they are raised in, as well as the effect of different treatments.

So back to these transgenic mice. Half of the group were socially isolated from weaning while the other group were kept together. And this is the important bit. The socially isolated mice went on to express more of the genes associated with breast cancer and developed more breast cancer tumours than the mice that were kept together! And no surprise, blood test results showed the isolated mice were more stressed.

So what does this tell us? The scientific answer is that ‘an adverse social environment is associated with altered mammary gland gene expression and tumor growth’. In plain English… it would seem that our emotional health is a HUGELY important factor in the development of breast cancer. It overturns the mindset that genes alone determine our health, doesn’t it?. So even if we have the genes that predispose us to the disease, our social environment, our connectedness if you like, plays an enormous role in whether we will actually develop the disease.

It’s a ray of hope isn’t it?. Especially when you realise we can choose to heal our emotions. Because many people don’t realise that genes are only a predisposition for a disease, and not a definite sentence…

Williams, J.B., Pang, D., Delgado, B., Kocherginsky, M., Tretiakova, M., Krausz, T., Pan, D., He, J., McClintock, M.K. & Conzen, S.D. (2009). A Model of Gene-Environment Interaction Reveals Altered Mammary Gland Gene Expression and Increased Tumor Growth following Social Isolation. Cancer Prevention Research, 2009; 2: 850

Sherry’s blog is spot on. I couldn’t agree with her more! Many people don’t realise stress is like the clothes we wear. We get so use to it we don’t feel it anymore. It seems that many women suffer a massive emotional stress before the onset of breast cancer, I know I did and so did many women I know of. Divorce, the loss of a child, the loss of a home are huge emotional losses. And then the stress of life just seems to bring on the inevitable.

The latest science is showing us that when we are chronically stressed our immune system gets shut down, which seems to actually allow the cancer to develop. My husband always says ‘cancer is something we’ve lost’, not something we’ve gained, because in cancer we lose our ability to get rid of cancer cells as they develop. This for most people, and at different times in our own lives, is a normal body process. Isn’t it empowering to view cancer from this perspective. That we can actually play a part in protecting our ability to deal with rogue cells. I was so lucky to have Steve involved in my recovery because he was able to measure the stress in my body and then help me to reduce it using biofeedback and adjustment techniques. There’s a bunch of about 50 neurologically based chiros like him in the US, Canada, Britain, Europe, South Africa and Australia who help people to recover from cancer in the same way. There’s also a great book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky that’s an easy read for those who like the science. The 2008 National Geographic documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer focuses on Robert Sapolsky’s work – it’s eye opening.

Thanks for your blog Sherry and for going out on a limb. I love the poem.

I took my radiation oncologist by surprise one day. She’s an absolutely gorgeous woman, a real breath of fresh air when you’re dealing with the ups and downs of treatment. She asked me the standard question of how I was feeling and I took great delight in telling her I felt better than I’d felt in 10 years! ‘Well’ she said ‘I’ve never heard anybody say that before’. I’d only just finished radio and chemo only weeks before that.

I put it down to the fact that I’ve done a ton of emotional healing. Not that I went to a therapist every week, far from it. But I’d spent a couple of sessions dealing with the depression and anxiety that I was feeling. You see I’d had this dark feeling hanging over me for years. I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know where it had come from, only that it was dark and ominous. A real sadness. Maybe it had something to do with the shock of my daughter’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis? Maybe it went further back than that. Add to that the stress in my life and I was a recipe for breast cancer. I felt completely alone.

I wonder why emotional healing is so often overlooked in the medical treatment of cancer? It’s so obviously essential and research is proving that. Back in 1995 at King’s College Hospital in London, a team of psychiatrists, radiologists, oncologists and surgeons undertook research which showed severe life events, and the way in which we cope with them as individuals, significantly predicts a diagnosis of breast cancer. And what I find even more incredible is that a woman with metastatic breast cancer has a longer survival time associated with a reduction in depression score. They’ve also shown that animals experiencing the stress of social isolation go on to develop cancer whereas animals that are kept in groups remain cancer free.

There’s no getting away from it – we are emotional beings and our emotions affect our bodies. It doesn’t take Einstein to work this out. If you get a fright, your muscles tense and your heart races, if you feel sad, you cry. Emotions have a physical consequence. When you have a disease that generates a minefield of negative emotions and those emotions cause inflammation – and studies have associated chronic inflammation with cancer incidence, progression and survival – it is essential to break the cycle isn’t it?! Many people don’t realise that when you are holding onto emotions that are pouring inflammation through your body, it’s difficult to heal. I get so frustrated when emotional healing is seen as an optional extra. There doesn’t seem to be anything optional about it. I often wonder if medical treatment may be even more successful if the emotional stuff is out of the way.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a group of doctors about the importance of emotional healing in serious illness. I love it when I get the chance to do this. Slowly I see the message getting through. The light is dawning. It’s important that doctors understand the role emotions play in health. Because people living with cancer and other serious illnesses need this information don’t they?! We can wipe the slate clean with chemo, radio and surgery but what if those emotions are still in play? It’s not too difficult to see that physical healing without the emotional or emotional without the physical is only doing half the job, isn’t it.

And that dark ominous feeling I had… well I’m relieved to say it’s gone. I noticed it wasn’t hanging over me any more just before my 6th cycle of chemo. It was a revelation. I suddenly felt lighter, freer. I didn’t notice it disappear, it just seemed to do that all by itself. It’s like I set the ball in motion, and that other part of me, that part that was creating the feeling in the first place, just knew what to do to let it go. That feeling of lightness and wellbeing has continued and I feel so much joy now in the simple beauty of everyday life…

Have you ever thought about the language we use around cancer? Today I heard myself telling a colleague ‘I lost my breast’. Well if I lost it, you’d think there would be a possibility that I might find it. If only it were that easy! (more…)

How often do we hear that someone is ‘fighting cancer’ or ‘battling cancer’. Catch cries such as ‘Together we can beat cancer’ are routinely used to fundraise for research and support services. This in itself, is not such a bad thing. However if people experiencing cancer take on the notion that they must fight this disease they can burn up a lot of energy that could be otherwise directed toward healing. Science shows us we cannot fight and heal at the same time. The ‘fight or flight’ response precludes ‘rest and repair’. (more…)