Getting diagnosed with breast cancer, regardless if its early stage or advanced, is devastating. However, recent advances in breast cancer treatment as well as access to organizations offering emotional support for breast cancer patients and survivors have proven successful in offering hope and a much better quality of life. Instead of letting your diagnosis beat you, complement your conventional breast cancer treatment with mind-body modalities and social support.
Emotional trauma of breast cancer can be worse than the breast cancer itself
Daniel Vicario, MD, medical oncologist at the San Diego Cancer Center and Research Institute, believes a healing environment plays a crucial role in helping breast cancer patients get well.
"When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she naturally feels tremendous fear, even if her cancer is in the early stages," says Dr Vicario. "The emotional trauma of being diagnosed with breast cancer can sometimes be worse than the disease itself."
Women diagnosed with breast cancer often feel doomed and isolated. And if their healthcare providers are insensitive to the impact of their diagnosis, breast cancer patients can experience extreme anxiety, hopelessness and depression.
However, Dr Vicario believes a healing environment that includes complementary modalities and, most important, dedicated and compassionate people that see women with breast cancer as having a chance to get better, will significantly improve their prognosis as well as improve their quality of life.
"The medical side of treatment – all the things based on the best of science and medicine – is the foundation, but a complementary approach and healing environment that takes care of the whole patient has a positive effect on patients' outcomes," he explains.
Complementary therapies include – but are not limited to – acupuncture, meditation, yoga, art therapy, therapeutic massage, visualization, hypnosis, Tai Chi, support groups, herbal treatments, nutrition and supplements. Dr Vicario says that for treatments to be effective, they need to be customized to each patient, since every cancer and every person is unique.
Combining science and medicine with mind-body techniques gives patients the best chance of healing because it can ease the emotional trauma that a breast cancer diagnosis can evoke. But what about complementary therapies make them effective?
Relaxing the mind, reducing stress and emotional support improves outcomes
Mind-body modalities bridge the emotional and the physical and treat patients wholistically. When a breast cancer diagnosis strikes terror in a patient's heart, her stress levels soar. Chronic stress can worsen prognosis, so it is paramount that part of successful breast cancer treatment include stress reduction techniques.
According to the San Diego Cancer Center website, researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered that simply saying a repetitive prayer, word, sound or phrase and disregarding intrusive thoughts can evoke the relaxation response, which can prove to be an effective therapy for the symptoms of cancer.
Through relaxing the mind, patients experience decreased metabolism, heart rate, respiratory rate and even slower brainwaves – all changes opposite of the physiological changes that occur due to stress. Used in conjunction with conventional breast cancer treatments, employing a mind-body approach that reduces stress can help patients have a better quality of life and even live longer.
Support groups provide resources and relief
Studies conducted at Stanford University have shown that patients who participated in support groups lived longer than those who were not assisted by a support group.
Women with breast cancer as well as survivors not only need each other, they can provide the type of emotional support that only those who have had breast cancer can understand and provide.
Christine Druther, breast cancer survivor and founder of Her2Support.org was diagnosed with HER2, an aggressive form of breast cancer that, previously, was given a poor prognosis.
She has triumphed in her battle with breast cancer, in spite of recurrences, and is now a health educator with the goal of educating women who have breast cancer to become participating partners in their healthcare rather than just patients.
According to Druther, when Her2Support.org was launched in late 2001, the breast cancer patient who was HER2 positive was pitied, and the only thing that the oncologist told her was "your cancer is aggressive and your prognosis is poor."
Years prior, at the time of her diagnosis, Druther says there was little or no information available on HER2 breast cancer and that the information that was available indicated survival in terms of months.
In 2001, however, after excruciating chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments, Druther received a cancer-free diagnosis.
She says, "After being told that I was cancer-free, I realized that there were many others like myself who needed help and support. I then envisioned a website to share all of the information that I had collected – a peer-supported organization where women could share personal information and experiences and also give them access to the latest research information."
Providing online support, Druther's website, though focused on HER2 information, is an invaluable resource for women, regardless of the stage or type of breast cancer.
Breast cancer survivors offer hope
Celebrities like Christina Applegate, Sheryl Crow and Kylie Minogue – among others – have proven that getting diagnosed with breast cancer is not a death sentence. And there are many other women who may not be celebrities but have beaten breast cancer just as valiantly.
These remarkable role models can be inspiration for you to fight for your health and overcome your disease.
"What any woman needs to know is that many many women have been told they'd die with incurable cancer and they have survived and have gone on to do remarkable things," concludes Dr Vicario.
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