Dealing with Fear

DoYouFearCancer7 People talk a lot about fearing cancer. They seem to be intimately connected.

False-evidence-appearing-realWhen I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn’t feel much fear. I just knew I needed to take action. From the first diagnosis until now, I have generally found my fear comes from those around me. When it visits, I have to take strong steps to keep myself “on the wagon” and fearless so to speak.

The first time I felt momentary fear was when I was having dye injected into me to locate my sentinel lymph node prior to having a lumpectomy and sentinel node removal. The radiologist was talking to me about breast cancer and likely progressions. She said you may find you need to have your ovaries removed. Momentarily I freaked out. I’d gone from being in for a lumpectomy to possibly having my ovaries out. I noticed what was happening and stopped my brain going in all directions and let go her comment, trusting my doctor had me in for a lumpectomy only.

The next occasion was the middle of the night, after my lumpectomy and the woman in the bed beside me was a few hours ahead of me in coming out of her anaesthesia cloud. She was on for a chat about all the details of her cancer, surgery and prior chemotherapy. I had to ask her to stop talking to me. I was starting to get very anxious taking on her fear. I hoped I wasn’t going to go on her journey.

fear-is-in-your-head1I came out of my first surgery feeling confident, until I went to see my surgeon. He told me I had a grade 2 cancer and would require all my left axillary lymph nodes removed, six weeks of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiotherapy and 5 years of hormone therapy. That’s when my fear did kick in. I thought I was losing myself, my power and my say over my life. I had become a number, a statistic. That generated a great deal of fear until I started reading, seeking more information and advice.

As I’ve said in a previous blog, the chemotherapy generated the most fear in me. As I started to lose myself, I got very scared. I thought I was dying. I sought help on a number of fronts – acupuncture, meditation, yoga, counselling, shiatsu – to assist me to deal with my fear. Meditation empowered me most and still does.

Once I had finished chemotherapy, I occasionally had friends ask if a friend, who had recently been diagnosed, could call me. Initially I said yes. These calls took me back through my whole experience, bringing up my fear. I had to decline such requests. Any mention of someone with breast cancer tends to kick start fear. Instead of talking I started this blog and have been referring people to it ever since. I hope it is making a difference.

feel-the-fearFear is never far away. Over the past 6 months I have been dealing with mild phantom breast pain and lymphoedema. It is hard not to think the worst when the pain starts. Instead of worrying, I take action and see my lymphoedema physiotherapist and lymphatic drainage massage therapist. Visiting them is always reassuring and sets my mind at rest again. Their treatments are helping my condition. As is my morning meditation. Just 10 minutes seems to set me in a great and peaceful frame of mind for the day.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a birthday dinner and a beautiful young woman started to talk to me about her recent breast cancer experience, her treatment and life on hormone therapy. I could feel her fear. Whilst I talked a little about integrated therapies I have used, the supplements I am on and how effective they have been, I felt her fear ‘invading’ me. I know that sounds dramatic. It was palpable and difficult not to absorb. I suggested she read my blog and if she found it interesting or of benefit, then perhaps we could speak further.

o-BECOMING-FEARLESS-facebookIt took me two weeks after this conversation to stabilise myself and feel fearless again. I realised, no matter how courageous I am, fear is never far away. It’s important to acknowledge it and not let it take me over. Fear is an accomplice of cancer. I believe keeping fear at bay will assist me to stay cancer free.

Freedom At Last

What fun January was! We enjoyed our beautiful country property, animals and it’s garden; had time with family in Sydney and Melbourne; caught up with old friends and competed in the Geelong Race Week regatta.

Gwinganna-SunsetI was also in a thinking, reflective, creating state for the whole month, culminating in a three-day Women’s Discovery Programme at Gwingana Lifestyle Retreat in the Gold Coast hinterland. I went with my cousin who has also had breast cancer. Not only was it time out for reflection on what the year ahead may hold for both of us, it was a time to have fun enjoying fitness activity, nature, “Dreamtime” each afternoon, fabulous healthy food and hugely informative lectures on health and wellness.


Dr Karen Coates

From the moment I arrived at Gwingana, I felt I had chosen the right retreat and location for us. We both wanted to move on from our breast cancer experience and start a new phase of our lives. Our programme included three lectures and a forum with Dr Karen Coates, a GP, obstetrician, gynaecologist and nutritional and environmental medicine practitioner.

We had the opportunity to request some lecture subjects up front. Breast cancer and it’s treatments were something we wanted to hear and ask about and we did.

The first topic addressed was what we need for Optimal Wellness:

  • nourishment
  • movement
  • stress resilience
  • reduction in our toxic load

The second was stress. How it manifests in the body (through adrenalin and cortisol production) and impacts our immune system and ‘gut health’. I completely tuned in to this. For a long time I have thought and felt that illness, particularly cancer, is caused by stress and our bodies being overloaded.

Our second day talk was on cancer and how to give yourself the best chance of staying well and ‘cancer free’ post diagnosis and treatment. The power of positive thinking is one of the key factors in healing. The following research statistics astonished me and provided me with the biggest gift of the retreat. Following a ‘natural treatment’ course is almost as effective as taking pharmaceutical drugs to keep me ‘cancer free’.

  1. A hormone blocker, such as Tamoxifen, is 68% effective
  2. Drinking one glass of red wine a day (and avoiding white wine and spirits) is 50% effective
  3. Putting on running shoes and doing 50 minutes of vigorous exercise (getting the heart rate up) 3 times a week is 60% effective
  4. Taking a GP prescribed Vitamin D is 65% effective
  5. Eating cruciferous vegetables – brussel sprout, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage regularly (ideally daily) is 37% effective

I have been following points 2-5 for the past 18 months. To have my intuitive approach, which is supported and guided by my integrative doctor, confirmed by another highly regarded practitioner gave me a renewed confidence in myself and the path I’m on.

Last December I had started to doubt myself with each little ache that showed up in the left side of my body. Also the fluid level in my body began to rise with the hot Sydney weather and I was diagnosed with early lymphoedema. I then started to worry and wonder whether I was regressing. No, I wasn’t regressing, I just had ‘noise’ in my head creating mischief and worry.

nia-is-a-celebration1At Gwingana, I danced, meditated, walked, reflected, listened, relaxed and came away lighter in mind, body and spirit, ready to start a new business.

Gwinganna_Meditation2I have been working on my ideas ever since – thinking, planning, talking, researching and networking. I’m excited and energised with a renewed zest for life. I feel I have truly ‘come out the other side’, having learnt an enormous amount about myself and wellness.The old enthusiastic me is back. However I am more loving, thoughtful and connected with myself and am present to the love in the world around me. This has been the greatest gift I have received from my brush with cancer.

The Miracle of Acupuncture

Life’s full again and so much fun. I feel on top of the world. I’m working – both paid and unpaid – and that’s a real morale boost.

I’m training to do the 50km Coastrek day walk from Palm Beach to Balmoral, Sydney in February 2014. I can feel my strength building every day that I train on the soft sand. I am so grateful for this. My weekly exercise programme includes two yoga classes, a pilates session and a walk on the other days with a few stairs thrown in to help rebuild my bone density.

Coastrek TrainingLast Saturday three of our four woman team did a 15km beach walk on Sydney’s northern beaches. It was magnificent. So energising. Then I went sailing afterwards and trimmed the mainsail over a 2-hour race. My energy is definitely back.

There’s another cog in my healing journey that I want to talk about. And that’s acupuncture. It was a pivotal treatment for 12 months. I’ve been asked a number of times, “what treatment benefited you the most during chemotherapy?” My answer is two things – acupuncture and meditation.

Japanese AcupunctureAbout six months before my diagnosis, I went to see Michelle Corban, who specialises in Japanese acupuncture. I was feeling tired and out of balance (possibly it was around when the cancer started). She checked my meridians, yin and yang, energy and pulses. The diagnosis was, my yin was depleted and my liver and kidneys were not functioning at full capacity. I had several sessions with her and my balance and energy returned.

Michelle was one of the first people I called when I was told I needed chemotherapy and radiotherapy. “Was there anything she could do for me that would enable me to not have chemotherapy?” We discussed several ideas and I sought second opinions. “There’s no alternative” I was told by my doctors. I decided then to use acupuncture to maintain my body, where possible during chemo, and to strengthen and rejuvenate it afterwards.

Instinctively I knew acupuncture would assist me during my chemo treatment. I didn’t know how. Before the first session, I had an acupuncture treatment with Michelle. The intention was to balance my body and have it be as strong as possible in receiving the chemotherapy drugs.

Acupuncture2From then on my pattern, in my three week chemotherapy cycle, was to have an acupuncture treatment 5-6 days after a chemo session and then 1-2 days before the next session. The rejuvenating powers of the acupuncture were almost miraculous. I could feel my physical strength and wellbeing shift markedly in the following 24 hours.

This was important in my recuperation. The chemo weakened both my yin and yang energy, in particular my yin – the loving, nurturing energy of my body. Once I finished chemo, I continued to have acupuncture regularly – fortnightly at first. I developed an incessant debilitating dry cough after the fifth chemo. Michelle concentrated on my lungs during our sessions with the result being no more cough.  Once it disappeared and my physical strength and wellbeing started to return, I saw her monthly. Now I have acupuncture when I feel I need it.

Yin Yang PearsWhilst acupuncture aided me enormously in rejuvenating my body, I have also needed the assistance of supplements to heal my gastrointestinal tract and my liver. I am still on a range of these. My liver is not fully healed. I’m now on a complementary diet of 75% fruit, salads, berries, bitter greens and vegetable juices. I am struggling with this. I’ve managed to shift my daily intake of these foods to 50%. I am working on increasing it a few percentage each day until I get to 75%.

I cannot recommend acupuncture highly enough for balancing and rejuvenating the body. If you decide to try it, make sure you find a good and reputable practitioner.

Acupuncture Can Help

The risk of Lymphoedema

What about lymphoedema? There are so many opinions about what causes this, who will get it, what you need to watch out for, how you can ensure you don’t get it.

I had my sentinel (lymph) nodes (in the chest wall) removed and then in a separate operation, where 18 lymph nodes were removed. This was the most painful part of the surgical procedure – 5 days in hospital, 15 days with a drain and months of pain, discomfort and tingling nerves. Fortunately the nodes were cancer free.

I didn’t even think about lymphoedema, especially because I was slim, until my surgeon said to me, “it would be good if you went to see Teresa Lee”, a lymphatic physiotherapist. I couldn’t get into see her, but I did see her colleague, Carol Morris.

There was so much I didn’t know and hadn’t thought about. The first thing she said to me is, “how’s your arm movement?” Well it was okay but it was getting stiff and tight and I found I had hard threads, known as “strings”, appearing in my armpit and down the arm where my lymph nodes had been removed. These were the lines of tissue which were part of my lymphatic system and had been attached to my lymph nodes.

Carol immediately went to work on releasing these. She set up a 5-week physiotherapy schedule and gave me some stretching exercises to do every day. I realised I was going to have to be good at ‘creeping up the wall and hanging off the door frame’ in order to get the full movement back into my arm, shoulder and upper back.  I wasn’t even thinking of losing mobility in my arm. Thank goodness I took immediate action and went to see her quickly. Within two months I had full use of my arm, range of movement and had regained the strength in it.

It didn’t finish there. She asked me whether I was having chemotherapy. “Yes”, I answered. “What’s that got to do with lymphoedema?” The fluid in your body can increase when you are on chemotherapy and lymphoedema can start at any time, even in slim women.

So Carol measured my body fluid levels before I started my chemotherapy treatment. What a great move this was. Six months later I discovered that this had risen from 5.6 to over 13, potentially putting me in the risk area for lymphoedema. More treatment would be needed.

In addition to being concerned about the lack of movement and strength in my arm and shoulder and the risk of lymphoedema, I had considerable numbness throughout my breast, down the side of my body between my armpit and breast as well throughout my shoulder and upper arm. I had fibriotic tissue in these areas which was causing the pain and discomfort. This is the area of my body that has taken the longest to heal. I still have numbness and tingling a year later and this may last for a further year or more.

Throughout my treatment and healing I felt I had angels looking over my shoulder and entering my life. One of those was Lisa Higgins, a massage therapist who specialises in manual lymphatic drainage. She works with my osteopath. She had heard I had recently been operated on for early breast cancer. She asked me to have a cup of tea with her and talked to me about how lymphatic drainage massage could assist in my recuperation.

Lymphatic Massage

I booked an appointment and a fantastic journey began. I had bi-weekly lymphatic massage with her. She drained the fluid out of the affected areas, broke up the fibrotic tissue and stimulated my body’s lymphatic system. Not only did this give me comfort, it gave me confidence in my body and healing.

My therapists were also my confidents, my listeners and advocates. I talked about my fears, my concerns, my ideas and how I was going in each session. This empowered me enormously and enabled me to really trust myself and to listen to my intuition.

A few months after I finished chemotherapy and six months after surgery, during the hotter months of summer, I started to get swelling in my hand and arm, particularly after exercising. This scared me. I rang Lisa, bound my hand and arm and went back to see Carol, the physiotherapist, as soon as possible. A compression sleeve then gauntlet were prescribed to be worn 8 hours a day, especially during and after exercise. I did this religiously and began to reduce the fluid in my arm and hand.

Twelve months after surgery, I stopped wearing the sleeve, except when flying, and got a fluid reading of 5.3. Back to normal!

I gently massage myself when I have pain and am easing back on my treatments. I still have to monitor myself. Lymphoedema could still start at any time.

Coping with the shock!

I have found different things shock different people and most are shocked when they are diagnosed with cancer. I wasn’t. Why? Because I knew I could beat it. Why was that? My mother had and I got it early. I thought my body had lost it’s equilibrium and that if I healed my immune system, I would heal my body and be cancer free for the long term.

I started talking to women who had had breast cancer and discovered no two cases are the same. There may be similar cancers in similar places in the body. How each body responds to treatment is often very different. So I could not get any advice on how to approach my situation. I realised I would need to chart my own course.

I got a very strong sense that my body, mind and spirit were out of balance. I read several books, in particular, Anatomy of the Spirit by Carolyn Myss and looked at whether there was an area of my life that I was angry or upset about and whether there was any person or situation I could forgive. There was, and so I set about doing the “forgiveness” exercises in Carolyn’s book. I forgave everyone including myself and felt an enormous lightness in my soul.

What shocked me was not the diagnosis, but the prescribed treatment after I was advised by the surgeon that he had taken a clear margin and there was no cancer in my lymph nodes. What was prescribed was six sessions of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiotherapy and five years of hormone therapy. I felt in that moment that I was going to lose myself and no longer be in the driver’s seat of my life or my well-being.

I immediately set on a path to discover how I could best look after myself and ensure that I stayed cancer free.

I had a CTC (circulating tumour cell) test done which was sent to Germany. The result was a recommendation that I did need chemotherapy and what chemotherapy would be best for the type of cancer I had. This confirmed the treatment prescribed by my oncologist. So I proceeded with it, even though in my heart I didn’t want it. I didn’t know enough at the time to make a choice about it. At each chemotherapy session I had, I thought of the drugs as a ‘love potion’ healing my body. Unfortunately I didn’t feel loved afterwards. I felt very unwell and started to find there was a disconnect between my mind and body. There were a number of practices I took on, in particular meditation, which helped me keep my mind and body as strong as I could during the process.

I went to a nutritionist, looked at my diet and how and where I could change it to aid my recovery. I also went back to my integrated GP to discuss how he could possibly support me. He prescribed me a range of supplements to assist with supporting my immune system and maintaining my physical strength. The important thing for me was not to lose my body strength and muscle tone whilst on chemotherapy.

This was the beginning of me establishing an amazing team of people around me. They provided great care and support.