Breast cancer, diagnosed in Sept. 1999, had spread to LaShawn Ross' spine, skull and rib cage by May 2005. Six months later, she was in a back brace and wheelchair recovering from a spinal fracture; she was bald and undergoing still more chemotherapy and radiation.
"I had lost all feeling from my waist down. My feet were curled under and my leg muscles were beginning to waste away because I couldn't move them," says Ross, 39, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.
Then, Lesley Hunt walked into her treatment room at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and offered to massage Ross' feet while the cancer-fighting drugs dripped through the port in her chest. It was the first of many massages, as well as sessions in reflexology, guided imagery, meditation and physical therapy, that would eventually help get Ross back on her feet.
"I think the massages helped relax my body enough to allow the chemotherapy to work," Ross says. "I think your body gets real tense because of everything that's going on - all the different medicines and treatments - and starts fighting against them. Massage and guided imagery help you to stay positive and focus on healing. I'm stage 4, considered terminal, now, but the cancer is pretty much holding still except for a tumor on my skull, and I'm still taking oral chemo pills for that."
Hunt is a CancerGuide "navigator" at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders in Fort Worth. The CancerGuides program was developed by the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, to give cancer patients, physicians and other caregivers reliable information on complementary and alternative therapies. Hunt is also a nurse and massage therapist who believes the mind, heart and spirit play an integral role in the body's physical healing and recovery process.
"I think it gives mental, physical and emotional comfort to be nurtured," Hunt says. "I work with patients before and after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to help them visualize what they want from treatment. It helps with anxiety and sleep problems and keeps the pain level down."
The Careity Foundation of Fort Worth, in partnership with the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, provides the funding for these support services, which also include nutritional counseling, pain management, training and education for caregivers and assistance in navigating the health care system.
Lisa Conley, a 48-year-old registered nurse and single mother of five, was told she had breast cancer last April, underwent a lumpectomy and chemotherapy and is just finishing radiation.
"I've been doing yoga and NIA [Neuromuscular Integrative Action] with Cancer Care Services and just started massage and now acupuncture here [at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders]," Conley said this month. "The mind-body treatments help you relax and think positive. Yesterday, I was so relaxed with acupuncture that I felt like I might melt into a puddle and slip right off the table."
In group and individual counseling sessions, Conley also has learned to use meditation and guided imagery - walking barefoot through smooth, warm sand on a beautiful beach, for instance - to take her away mentally to a safe place where she feels comfortable and can just give her cares away for a while.
"Feeling overwhelmed is a perfectly normal response to breast cancer, especially if you are the primary caregiver in the family," says Robyn Young, director of breast cancer services at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. "Taking care of yourself should be of great importance. One of the first things I do with a new patient is set her up with our massage therapist to talk about what images are peaceful and safe for this particular patient so she can go inside her own mind to that place, anytime she needs it. It gives her back some control over her life. Generally, patients need a lot less pain medication if they have some control.
"One question breast cancer patients all need to ask is, 'What else can I do to make this better? Can I walk? Can I take vitamins? Do yoga?'" Young says. "I honestly think my walkers do better, have less side effects ... I can't explain why one patient gets mouth sores and another doesn't, but for some, yoga seems to make a difference; so does eating lots of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains and protein, exercising and getting enough sleep."
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