This is the first of a three-part blog which moves through a beautiful Cancer survivor’s journey of how she thrives and continues to build resilience using different complementary therapies and delving whole heartedly into spirituality.
Jo and I met a couple of years ago when she attended a meditation circle at my well-being centre. We struck up a friendship and I am honoured that she feels comfortable enough to share her story with me in order to help others. Please note that none of this advice is intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
In 1990, aged nineteen, Jo was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and within two weeks had started chemotherapy. Following the treatment, she was measured up to begin radiotherapy when she was told that the tumours had moved so had to continue with more chemotherapy which treated the cancer successfully. During chemotherapy, Jo was fitted for a wig and despite the difficulties, she was determined to make the best of herself and never stopped wearing make-up.
Five years went by with Jo attending regular check-ups. In her words “I felt like I was standing trial every year, was I going to be given a free pass or not this time?” Jo got married and due to the chemotherapy causing infertility, they had a gorgeous son through IVF egg donation. Life seemed perfect, somehow ordinary but all the while Jo felt a little rain cloud on her shoulder. Jo was finally discharged after ten years and she “hit the floor and fell into a deep hole”, who would look after her now?
Jo mentioned to a Macmillan nurse that she felt like she was facing a future with no support and was advised to look into coping strategies which lead her to contact her GP who diagnosed her with “post infection malaise” or depression. She was prescribed anti-depressants and after a couple of months started feeling better. A young female clinical psychologist helped Jo immensely through role play, allowing her to talk about her disease. She felt she had one life before the disease and one life after it and how she felt her situation was like a brick wall. They discussed that it was okay to live next to the wall and the psychologist introduced Jo to CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
What is CBT?
CBT is a talking therapy which focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviour, and teaches you coping skills. It combines cognitive therapy (examining the things you think) and behaviour therapy (examining the things you do).
It is based on the idea that the way we think about situations can affect the way we feel and behave so if we think of a situation as a negative we may experience negative emotions which lead us to behave in a certain way. Jo had a lot of triggers (e.g. a cancer story line on the TV, different health anxieties)that made her feel anxious and upset, so she would write it down rather than catastrophizing the feelings and go back to them a week later and more often than not the feelings had lost their importance.
During our time talking, Jo admitted that her stomach was churning telling her story, but as she is a work in progress; she no longer worries because she has built up a “toolkit” of coping strategies which we will look at in this series of blogs. She is now comfortable with worry, she knows it is part of the human psyche because our brains are wired negatively and she doesn’t allow it to manage her anymore – she is in charge.
Jo experimented with CBT for a few months and although it worked she admits it took a lot of effort to take ownership of the self-development. “Therapy is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but the biggest benefit you can give yourself is to take it seriously.”
Three years after her final discharge for Hodgkin’s disease, Jo found a lump in her breast. After going to see the GP, Jo was referred to the breast clinic at her local hospital where she had a physical examination, an ultra-sound, a needle biopsy, bloods taken and was diagnosed with stage three ER negative (not fed by oestrogen) breast cancer.
Jo had a lumpectomy and an axillary clearance, thankfully the tumour was contained. She had six months of chemotherapy which was so much better than she experienced in 1990 because she felt the anti-sickness drugs had improved, followed by six weeks daily radiotherapy. She wanted to involve her young son in her illness so prior to having her hair cut short, he cut off her ponytail.
During her breast cancer hospital treatments, she decided to try some of the complementary therapies on offer and she enjoyed aromatherapy massages, Jo felt they helped her to cope, made her feel relaxed. She left the hospital in a good state of mind. She was fascinated how the therapist used particular oils to match her mood.
Aromatherapy is the science and art of using aromatic plant extracts for healing and cosmetic purposes. These extracts, known as essential oils, are highly concentrated and are used therapeutically, either singly or blended, to improve our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Essential oils that calm the mind or lift our mood have been used for thousands of years in holistic therapies, yoga and meditation.
Aromatherapy works mainly through our sense of smell. The essential oil molecules travel to the top of the nose where they come into contact with olfactory nerve cells which have tiny hairs that can recognise a specific aroma. Scientists think that the activity of the nerve signal passing through this area alters our brain chemistry creating a change in our mood. Our sense of smell is the oldest of all our senses and it is linked to some of the most ancient and deepest parts of the brain. As we breathe in, the aromas of essential oils trigger our brains to produce both emotional and physical responses. In addition, as we inhale these essential oils they enter our respiratory system and become absorbed by our bodies. This is what made such a difference to Jo and many others who enjoy using aromatherapy.
To be continued
Read the next blogs in this series on Jo’s journey and how she is still thriving using techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, counselling, Bach Flower Essence remedies and learning about spiritual and energy medicine practices such as Reiki, Qi gong and vibrational techniques.
Click here to find out more about Jennifer Young Beauty Despite Cancer Aromatherapy training courses.