The New Grief

How families find renewal through loss.

The Healing Zone: What to Do After Cancer Treatment

For cancer survivors healing only begins when treatment ends

As a cancer patient, when I had been given my last chemotherapy treatment, my oncologist told me, "Now get on with your life."-- Kathleen

Kathleen states that when she received the above advice it was simultaneously heartening and disheartening. It was heartening because the doctor was telling Kathleen that she was cancer-free and could move forward. It was disheartening, however, because Kathleen's story didn't really end there. After extensive treatment for breast cancer she was both emotionally and physically depleted. She may have been cancer-free, but she was by no means "healed."

In her book, You Can Heal Yourself, Julie Silver, M.D. addresses this often overlooked but vital issue: how we can truly heal ourselves following a lengthy stay in "the sick zone" of severe illness. And by the way — Kathleen is Dr. Silver's middle name.

From "Treatment" to "Healing"

As any patient  (and their loved ones as well) knows only too well, treatment for cancer is a long and winding road. It is also an emotional roller coaster. From the moment of initial diagnosis it injects a strong element of anxiety into patient and family alike. To say that it is taxing on the body and the spirit is a gross understatement. Cancer treatment is often a frightening, confusing journey that is fraught with difficult decisions. Many bad things can happen along the way. And if it does lead to a "cure," that process typically includes pernicious and long-lasting side effects.

The great majority of patients are like Kathleen: faced with a "new normal" that may include chronic fatigue, pain, weakness and depression. But the point of Dr. Silver's book is that one does not have to accept this "new normal." Rather, it is possible to heal, to heal on many levels, and to recapture the vitality that many patients enjoyed before they ever became ill.

You Can Heal Yourself (St. Martin's Griffin) focuses on teaching cancer patients (and those who suffer from similarly serious illnesses) how to go about healing themselves in two ways: from the inside out, and from the outside in. Here are a couple of examples of the many practical solutions she offers:

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  • Using Your Mind to Heal Yourself. Meditation in many different forms has been found to significantly relieve stress, depression, pain and insomnia. The book describes several different approaches to meditation and offers specific instruction in one of them: the relaxation response.
  • Using Exercise to Heal Yourself. The book offers specific instructions about how to design an exercise program that can go a long way toward healing wounded tissue, bones, and muscle. Such programs must be individualized but can include aerobic exercise, strength training and cross-training in varying amounts.
  • Using Self-Love to Heal Yourself. Several useful and practical strategies are discussed in this chapter. They include such things as learning to draw or knit, do jigsaw puzzles or take up a musical instrument. As simple as these ideas may sound, most cancer patients attest to how much their lives narrowed soon after they entered treatment, and how they can easily remain that way afterward. Working toward a more balanced life style that includes such things as meditation, exercise and self-nurturance can have a cumulative and synergistic effect on one's health.

The final chapter of You Can Heal Yourself is titled "You Can Overcome Setbacks," and it is a fitting way to end the book. In it, Dr. Silver recognizes that the healing process is rarely a smooth road, and that one should expect to encounter bumps and ruts in the road. Moreover, the more that researchers learn about cancer the more we realize that the phrase "cancer survivor" really means "cancer survivor so far." That reality makes taking charge of healing yourself and following through with a plan for personal healing all the more important.

Copyright Joe Nowinski, Ph.D. 2012

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is the supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

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