Twenty years ago, I set up what is now one of the UK’s leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. Today it has six centres across the country - in London, Leeds, Hereford, Hampshire, Solihull and Worcester. It offers support - counselling, nutrition, information and complementary therapies - to anyone affected by breast cancer, free of charge.
The Haven epitomises the successful working of integrative medicine - a partnership of complementary therapies and conventional approaches working hand in hand. In its early days, whilst hospital treatment focused on surgery, chemo and radiotherapy, The Haven had one of the widest ranges of therapies on offer under one roof anywhere in the world. Today, things have moved on and across the UK hospital oncology units and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) are working together to benefit patients with all types of cancer.
In the topsy-turvy frightening months that follow a breast cancer diagnosis, complementary therapies have been shown, in research studies and in practise, time and time again, to make a quantifiable difference to the side effects of conventional medical treatment and to the quality of life of the people who used them alongside those treatments. The Haven Programme has repeatedly been described as ‘life-changing’ by the tens of thousands of people who have benefited from the charity’s work. Without it, people felt their recovery would have been infinitely harder.
I am a fervent believer in the power of combining both approaches following any diagnosis of breast cancer. The hospitals and oncologists have a range of medical approaches on offer - drugs, surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy to address the cancer - but there is a world of gentler, kinder yet still effective options that can also play a part in your healing and make a substantial difference to your recovery.
Complementary therapy can support you physically, mentally and emotionally during what is often a difficult journey. The importance of feeling you are playing a part in your own recovery cannot be understated, replacing the debilitating feeling of powerlessness that is often reported when you hand over all control to the hospital.
Many breast cancer units now offer some or all of the following therapies as part of their protocol:
Releasing emotional stress is an important part of your healing and one that people often under-rate. You may be offered a series of sessions with your hospitals counsellor or psychotherapist and I would encourage you to take up the offer. I have so often heard people say that they don’t feel ‘counselling’ is for them, but the breast cancer path can often be a lonely one.
Your family and those closest to you are often in shock themselves, perhaps feeling powerless about what to do and what to say to best support you. They want you to be ‘OK’ as you go through treatment, when ‘OK’ is the last thing in the world you may be feeling. You may as a result, not feel you can show your true feelings, that you have to pretend to be fine to re-assure them, when inside the fear and the grief are often overwhelming and you are anything but.
Having someone to talk to who understands what you are going through and with whom you can safely and fully express your feelings can be life-changing - and, vitally, help you to feel less alone. Breast cancer brings many difficulties with it and can strike cruelly and directly at the heart of your femininity - the removal of a breast, the resulting scarring, the loss of your hair and the effects of the drugs on your libido are hard to deal with whatever the circumstances, but even harder alone.
Make cleaning up your diet a priority as you go through treatment. Many hospitals offer consultations where a trained nutritionist will go through your eating habits with you, recommending changes alongside a programme of specific supplements to take that will help your body to stay strong and boost your immune system to work more effectively.
The latest cutting-edge cancer treatment, immunotherapy works with the immune system to boost its abilities to destroy your cancer cells. Cutting out certain foods, and replacing them with others has also been shown to minimise the unwelcome side effects of many of the prescribed drugs, reducing hot flushes, muscle and bone aches and rashes.
Has been shown to help breast cancer patients with the side effects of chemo, radio, surgery, hormonal drug treatments, reducing hot flushes, night sweats rashes and the intensity of muscle and bone aches. It helps with tiredness, vomiting and feelings of nausea. You may be offered one to one acupuncture sessions, or ear acupuncture in a group.
Reflexology is based on the idea that stimulating specific points on your feet can improve the functioning of corresponding organs, glands, and other body parts. A recent study has found that reflexology helped ease some side effects from chemotherapy and hormonal therapy treatments in women being treated for metastatic breast cancer. In particular it eased shortness of breath which is sometimes a side effect of the treatment for breast cancer.
Aromatherapy massage, using specially chosen essential oils, combines the healing power of touch with specially chosen scented essential oils that have been shown to trigger deep emotional release, and change and boost your moods. If you are currently having chemotherapy, however, you may become highly sensitive to scents and smells so if possible delay any appointments until after your treatment has finished.
Hospitals also offer sessions with specialist oncology massage therapists, who are highly experienced and understand exactly what is needed after surgery and cancer treatment. If you have had lymph nodes removed there is a risk of developing lymphoedema, so look for a therapist who understands the lymphatic system and knows how to drain excess fluid away from the affected arm and breast area.
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
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