Breast cancer tests mind, body and spirit

Sarika Jagtiani

Marianne Walch is a yoga instructor at the Wellness Community Delaware, and she’s also a cancer survivor.

She knows how a cancer diagnosis can bring anger at your body, a feeling you’ve lost control of your life. And she knows how to help regain that control.

She said yoga fits in with the Wellness Community’s mission to bring “professionally led programs of emotional support, education and hope as an integral part of conventional medical treatment.”

“Having cancer causes a lot of physical and emotional stress, and everything that can help relax the body and the mind and relieve that stress helps ... to access a calm center in the middle of all the chaos that you’re going through,” Walch said.

Whether they have just received their diagnosis, are 10-year survivors or have just finished their last round of radiation therapy, those dealing with breast cancer know what Walch is talking about. That mind/body/spirit connection is essential to survival.

Although Walch had thyroid cancer, breast cancer survivor Sheryl Smith knows all about the necessity of treating her spirit and her body.

Smith, a massage therapist, worked every day through her treatment. Her clients knew what she was going through and she would rest if necessary.

“I really, really think working with my clients helped me so much,” she said. “I looked forward to that every day, and I knew that I had to be there for those people.”

Smith used diet imagery tapes and frequented Good News Natural Foods. She walked for exercise, rested between clients, and her husband took over household duties and made sure she was well nourished.

She found inspiration in her mother, now 87, who survived colon cancer, and her grandson, Austin. One of the trials Austin saw her through was the loss of her hair.

Smith said she was going to get rid of her hair so she could get better. She told Austin she would miss it, and he agreed that he would, too.

“That was a very hard part for me because I loved my hair,” she said. “I never had a bad hair day.”

So Smith stocked up on wigs and used Bare Minerals makeup.

“It was very important to me not to look sick,” she said.

When she felt up to it, she started spiking up her newly grown, short locks and other women she was in treatment with joined her.

She also boosted her confidence by going to the doctor herself. It was important to know she could do it.

Now she mentors Mary Anne LaTorre-Newell, who was diagnosed in April. Newell has a few more months of chemotherapy and radiation to go, and when she talks about it Smith gets teary-eyed. She said she gets emotional because she knows what Newell is going through.

The two were paired up through the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalitions mentoring program and hit it off.

Part of Newell’s current regimen of well-being is meeting with Smith regularly for brunch and doing Tai Chi together.

Newell also works on her body by cutting back on fats and sugars and using probiotics, friendly bacteria sometimes used in complementary and alternative medicine, according to the National Institutes of Health.

She also uses acupuncture and Reiki, a Japanese stress reduction and healing practice that involves the laying of hands on the body.

Smith helps Newell through by sharing her experiences.

“When we started to talk, there was just this connection,” Newell said.

That connection helped her get through the uncertainty. Her strong faith, a healing service at church and journaling have helped, too.

“We feel like we have this network,” she said.

That network of trusted people is essential when dealing with cancer, according to Sean Hebbel, LCSW, program director of the Wellness Community Delaware.

“None of us have a lock on life,” he said. “I think sometimes the emotional part is, frankly, harder than the physical part.”

Going through treatment can make those with cancer feel like they are doing something productive to fight it. But when the treatment is over, mental strength is necessary.

“How do you balance the anxiety of it coming back with the normalcy returning?” he said.

Life can be good – sometimes better – after cancer, Hebbel said, but it takes a while to get to that point.

He said one thing others can do to help is avoid the tyranny of positive thinking. In other words, don’t tell people with cancer that they have to keep a positive outlook constantly. Let them be angry, or upset, or frustrated. Telling them they have to be upbeat is an added burden, as is asking what you can do to help.

If you want to help, tell them you will go with them to treatment, or drive them there, Hebbel said. Or just take dinner to them. Don’t ask if they want you to, just do it.

Sometimes dealing with cancer means having a safe place to be negative or scared when necessary.

Cancer patients and survivors should “find themselves a support system that allows them to express the full range of feelings,” Hebbel said. That can be a support group, church, friends or family. “As long as they allow the person to express themselves.”

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