Using scientific research as a springboard for discussion, CKN is distilling this research into practical narratives that will improve the quality of life for patients and offer deeper understanding and connection for physicians. Please join this Doctor-Patient conversation about Complementary Cancer Therapy.
by Jennifer Bassett, Living with Cancer
We are a society of “doers,” always striving to achieve; racing to our arbitrary finish lines. I used to be a “doer.” I was a straight “A” student in school and participated in many extracurricular activities. I went to college to pursue my Bachelor’s degree, then on to receive my Master’s. I aggressively chased a sales career that often placed a higher value on the bottom line rather than on the people I was serving. I bought a car, a house, a dog. I changed careers. I got married. I got pregnant. Then, I found the lump and several months later received my cancer diagnosis.
I created new check lists and new finish lines – “I just have to get through this surgery,” “eight more rounds of chemo to go!” I convinced myself that upon checking these things off, I was on my way to being done with cancer. I was on my way to being cured.
Only three months after my initial diagnosis, a scan revealed that my breast cancer had metastasized to my liver and spine. I was told there is no cure. I would be in treatment for the rest of my life, which would most likely be cut short. For the first time in my life, I did not know what to “do;” all of my achievements up to this moment, and all of my checklists for the future suddenly seemed shallow. I began to ask myself profound questions – What was the point if this is where I was going to end up? Why was I always in such a hurry? How can I live my best life now…if it’s not measured in milestones, then how?
A paradigm shift started to happen when I let go of “doing” and started working on simply “being.” I found myself referring to all the cliché platitudes – “take one day at a time,” “find something to be grateful for in each day,” “just breathe.” Telling one these things is all well and good, but actually working them into daily life requires a great deal of effort. I knew I would need help.
I have been extremely fortunate to live in an area that has a volunteer-run cancer resource center for patients and family members called The Gathering Place. They offer everything from counseling and cooking classes to exercise and art therapy. My oncologist was thrilled that I sought out their services, and I use many complementary therapies in concert with traditional medicine to treat my cancer and subsequent symptoms/side effects.
At a recent photography workshop hosted by TGP, we discussed the difference between being cured and being healed. Being cured is all about the physical world. A cure is medical. Healing, on the other hand, is holistic and involves the mind, body, and soul. Someone in the group said that while a cure requires a medical team, healing requires a lot of grace and grit from the individual. True healing requires acceptance and then the real work of self-actualization can begin.
This was such an enlightening notion, especially coming from a photography class. We took pictures that day of the same object over and over, each time from a different vantage point. We were tasked to show what the image was and then dig deeper until the physical was gone and the image became something else entirely. It was a great exercise in introspection and self-healing.
I participate in a lot of art therapy workshops like that one. I think that this appeals to the “doer” in me while simultaneously allowing me to be fully present in the moment. It is deeply satisfying to create something tangible that expresses my feelings where words fail me. I am able to focus on the task at hand and let my worries, fears, and stressors of the day fade away. With my oncologist’s clearance, I also took up yoga and Tai chi. The gentle movements have helped me regain strength and flexibility, and the breathing exercises have helped me to relax and to sleep better at night.
I truly feel that my oncologist and I are a team. He knows how important it is for me to manage my symptoms in a variety of ways. With the cancer in my bones, I have chronic pain. The hormone therapy I am currently on also causes severe joint pain. I have my own personal pharmacy of narcotics for when it gets really bad, but we’ve had numerous conversations about my desire to heal myself without becoming addicted to any substances. My oncologist thus referred me to a physical therapist/personal trainer that specializes in resistance training using water therapy. I am excited to be starting that very soon.
Throughout these experiences, I’ve come to the realization that early on in my diagnosis I was very much a cancer patient – seeking medical advice and jumping right in to the prescribed treatments. I was still a “doer,” rushing to get things done in the hope that my cancer would soon be done. Upon my stage IV diagnosis, I had to accept that there is no finish line. I will not be done until I am dead, so I better get busy living my best life now. I started to evolve into an active participant in my cancer care—something my oncologist not only supports, but applauds. While I know I am not likely to be cured, I am confident that I can continue to heal myself with the conscious decision to simply be present in each day. My body may end up failing, but my spirit will not be broken. I am no longer as concerned with reaching certain milestones or getting to my arbitrary destinations as I am with being fully present while on the path, where ever it may lead.
Jennifer Bassett is a loving wife and mother to an 11 month old boy. She discovered her breast cancer while 7 months pregnant, but was misdiagnosed until several months postpartum when she insisted that her doctor take her concerns more seriously. Jen is now facing a stage IV diagnosis, the cancer having metastasized to her liver and spine. She is part of The Young Women’s Initiative/Young Advocate program through Living Beyond Breast Cancer (lbbc.org) and strives to reach other young women to raise awareness about metastatic disease and push for further research toward the cure. She is 30 years old.
by Dr. Stephen Sagar, Integrative Oncology Editor
An anecdotal narrative is an important microcosm of experiential research. It is the glue that holds together the formal algorithms of scientific management within the therapeutic relationship. Jennifer eloquently describes the importance of her oncologist’s supportive care and consideration of appropriate complementary therapies during her cancer journey. “I truly feel that my oncologist and I are a team. He knows how important it is for me to manage my symptoms in a variety of ways”, states Jennifer. Many oncologists, of course, support their patients using similar techniques. Unfortunately, this is often not expressed or formalized. A minority does not prioritize these techniques and tends to rely solely on the science of anti-cancer treatment. For that minority, there is now excellent evidence that patients cope and function better with appropriate supportive care techniques that include counseling and evidence based complementary therapies. In other words, despite the “lean and mean” focus on factory medicine, the therapeutic relationship between the front line health care practitioner and their patient remains paramount. Communications skills, empathy, mentorship, and empowerment contribute to patient coping and function. The “working alliance” is associated with patient self-efficacy, satisfaction, adherence, and perceived utility of treatment1. A recent study examined patients’ beliefs in what helped them to survive cancer. It concluded that a proactive attitude and an exceptional physician are important. Compassion, demeanor, availability, honesty and sensitivity in the decision-making process are all key attributes2.
- De Vries AMM, de Roten Y , Meystre C, Passchier J, Despland J-N, Stiefel F. Clinician characteristics, communication, and patient outcome in oncology: a systematic review. Psycho-Oncology 2014; 23: 375–381.
- Frenkel M, Gross S, Giveon AP, Sapire K, Hermoni D. Living outliers: experiences, insights and narratives of exceptional survivors of incurable cancer. Future Oncol 2015; 11: 17410-1749.
Stephen Sagar, Professor Oncology, McMaster University, Canada. Dr. Sagar’s research interests are supportive care, patient-centered care, the reciprocal relationship between the mind and body, epigenetic phenomena, and reducing the adverse effects of anti-cancer therapies. He has published widely on radiation oncology and supportive care (including complementary therapies), and presented at numerous international meetings. He is past-president of the Society for Integrative Oncology, member of the International Psycho-Oncology Society, and member of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiation Oncology.