Healing After your Breast Cancer Journey
In a second your life changes and nothing is ever the same again… How can you start down the path of healing after breast cancer?
Everyone moves through this cancer journey differently, but I will share a few of the things that have helped me to rebuild my life after 2 major surgeries and radiation treatment.
The start of the journey
You go to the Doctor with a small worry, a lump or bump. Maybe it’s something, maybe it’s nothing. Better get it checked out. The Doctor isn’t sure and orders a battery of tests and consultations. You give more blood samples than you thought possible. Suddenly and without warning you find yourself riding on the petrifying rollercoaster of cancer treatment. It’s an extreme ride. You want to get off but you can’t. You have to cling on, white-knuckled to the bitter end.
I live in the U.K. and the NHS is a wonderful thing. It is nothing short of a miracle to receive state of the art, top notch treatment without having to sell your house or go bankrupt to pay for it (as happens commonly in America). The staff I have had contact with have been, without exception, skilled professional and kind. They work long hard hours to ensure the safety and happiness of their patients.
But once you are ill, especially with a serious disease like cancer, you enter a system. A vast and fairly impersonal structure. It has to be like this. The NHS could not work other than as a huge organism, but as you go through treatment you can begin to feel lost, depersonalized, like a piece of meat. Medicalised, you wonder how you can even begin to start healing after breast cancer?
As you enter treatment, for breast or any type of cancer, you remove all the trappings of your life. The clothes, the jewelry, the makeup. You may even lose your hair. You are left with nothing but your raw self and humanity. It can be a very frightening and isolated place. You then have to place the trust of your life in mysterious drugs or surgery, fluids and IVs, surgeons or consultants you may not even like. Some things are painful or will make you feel terrible. You revert right back to your primary nature. You find yourself lying in a hospital bed in the middle of the night, staring at the turquoise ceiling and the disposable cardboard sick bowl and sobbing deep from your inner being.
Everything you see reminds you of this state. The slightly beige hospital plastic colours. The light turquoise hospital wall. The smell of alcohol hand gel, plastic seats, waiting rooms. It’s so hard to shake off this medicalisation of the body and mind. Even long after you have finished treatment it clings to you. There seems to be no end to the journey. You are always waiting for another recall back into it. It’s hard to put a full stop behind it.
The good news is that although things will never go back to how they were before you were ill, you can find a new and powerfully positive state of normality. Serious illness can be the springboard to power you forward into a new and invigorated life. Life Version 2.0 as I like to call it.
So where do you start when you need to try and rebuild yourself, to shake off the fear and antiseptic smells?
I view my life in two parts, before and after this cancer health crisis. In my life version 2, going into the future, I have radically overhauled everything in order to support and look after my body and mind. I have rearranged my work and home in order to minimise stress. Junk food is out and healthy gentle nutrition is in. I feel this gives my body a basis to start to heal itself. Our bodies are amazing things if we can just support and help them by giving them what they need. When we are busy and stressed it’s easy to let self-care fall by the wayside and I feel in my case this is where my illness was born.
Look at your life. What are your priorities? Can you rebalance them? What doesn’t work anymore? What causes you stress? What can you change in order to find the balance you need to heal?
Cancer survivor Bernadette Bohan, in her book, The Choice, offers some simple ways in which you can change your life in order to help your body to heal. She has a great blog with ideas for positive life change.
Be in Nature
I find nature incredibly healing. Since being a little child I have needed to be close to the open fields and trees. I now live in a rural area and try and make time every day for at least a 30-minute walk outside. I believe strongly that the fact that my studio has a garden is an important element in helping my clients to heal.
Countless studies have shown the benefits to cancer patients of exercise. Combine that with nature in the form of a brisk walk through the woods or fields and you have a wonderfully powerful combination. Get out in all weathers, feel the elements, learn the natural cycles where you live. Get back to nature a little more and feel her power. She will re-energise you.
As I write this I am in a hospital bed gazing out at the urban landscape of Leeds in Yorkshire. There isn’t much green out there, a row of shriveled trees and bleak 70’s tower blocks. However, I have found a beautiful nature sounds album on Spotify which I am listening to. The sounds of water and birdsong, albeit a recording, help to calm the limbic system of the brain and this helps me feel calm in a stressful situation. Outside, as I watch carefully, I have seen four red kite birds of prey flying in lazy wide circles over the city. Look for nature wherever you are. She is there, even in the most unlikely places, and she will help you to heal…
Reclaim Your Body
After surgery you can be left with a body that feels alien. It may not function in the way that it did and it is very likely to look different. This creates a strange and dissonant mental state as your brain struggles to reconcile your new body with the old mental image that you have of it. You may be in shock and learning to love your new body may be difficult and may take time. Scar tissue can affect more than just our skin.
I am lucky in that a local health centre offers Oncology Massage. Practitioners can offer a massage that takes into account the toll that cancer has had on your body. This may mean working around tumour sites, lymph node problems, fragile tissue etc. It’s a good way to start to feel comfortable and in touch with your body again.
Recreating the appearance of your nipple via a 3D Nipple Tattoo can have a very positive mental effect as it may enable you to feel comfortable and at home with your new body when you glance in a mirror. It can allow you to reclaim your body after the trauma of surgery.
As mentioned above, music and sound can access the deepest parts of our brain and help us to feel calm in the face of stressful situations. Buddhists and Hindus have long known the power of chanting and mantra to induce a state of relaxed awareness.
A recent study found that one eight-minute track, “Weightless” by Manchester musicians, Marconi Union was so relaxing it shouldn’t be listened to whilst driving. The study found the track to, be more relaxing than a walk, massage or cup of tea.
The track was found to slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
I like to listen to this track [and album] on headphones if I can’t sleep. I find it very helpful for inducing a relaxed and calm state if I am feeling worried or tense.
You can find the track on Spotify with this link.
I was introduced to meditation a few years back by doing a short course. I incorporated it into my daily life and when I got my cancer diagnosis I found the skills that I had learned were invaluable in dealing with the stress and worry of the situation. It also helped me deal with medical procedures such as having MRI scans which could be very claustrophobic and panic inducing.
I started by attending a local mindfulness course and then worked to ensure that I did some meditation every day. Palouse offers a free online version which is a great place to start if you are interested in learning meditation and mindfulness techniques.
I also find Binaural Beats very helpful. These are pieces of music which are technically engineered, by the use of certain frequencies and drum beats, to bring the brain into a Theta or trancelike state. Through time, Native American Shamen, yogis and monks have used similar techniques to allow them to reach higher states of consciousness. The new recordings are just the modern equivalent.
I find that listening to a binaural beats track whilst meditating enables me to relax and get into a meditative state more quickly. If you have tried to meditate but find that your brain is very busy and it is hard to calm it down you might like to try them out. You may find it helps to calm your “chattering monkey mind”
The environment we encounter has a huge bearing on how we feel. To this end I have tried to make the tattoo studio, where I work and create permanent 3D Nipple Tattoos, as different as possible from a hospital environment whilst utilising hospital standard hygiene procedures. It is a warm and inviting private studio space opening on to a hidden garden area in order to maximise the calming and healing power of nature. As I only see one client at a time, you will not have to encounter the busy bustle of an open tattoo shop environment at a time when you may be feeling vulnerable.
The studio is located in Holmfirth, near Huddersfield in rural West Yorkshire, an area of outstanding natural beauty close to the Peak District National Park. Some clients stay overnight to make the most of a trip to the area. I hope you will find it a healing and positive space to visit which will help you to complete your breast cancer journey.
The ideas above just a small selection of the techniques and methods I have used to rebuild my mental and physical health whilst dealing with cancer. I hope you find something here which will be helpful to you as you heal your body and mind from breast cancer.
Love and light.
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