Healthy Living: Beyond Cancer Treatment



“First, you cry,” wrote Betty Rollin of her breast cancer journey 37 years ago. In her seminal book of the same name, Rollin, who was a well-known TV correspondent at the time, was one of the first women to publicly describe how a breast cancer diagnosis changed her life. She took some heat for being vain in lamenting her lost breast after mastectomy, but mostly Rollin empowered women to openly discuss the disease and to acknowledge needs that go beyond surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Much has changed in the intervening years, and today those needs—from coping with hair loss to navigating the insurance maze—are being met by the medical community in spades. Women with breast cancer are now as likely to be offered emotional sustenance as part of their treatment as they are anti-nausea drugs to ameliorate chemo effects. Breast care specialists throughout Connecticut are ministering to the whole person, not just the cancer.

Why the shift?

“I’m not sure if it’s because it’s in women’s nature to want to talk and share, or because breast cancer can profoundly impact a woman’s life, or because there is just so much increased awareness, but we are there for patients in many ways that go beyond treatment,” says Mary Heery, a certified breast-care nurse at Smilow Family Breast Health Center at Norwalk Hospital. From genetic counseling to free Reiki, Heery and her colleagues treat body and soul pretty much 24/7. To wit: Heery gives out her cell phone number to newly diagnosed patients and checks in on them, often after hours, to see how they’re doing.

More than 3,000 Connecticut women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and Connecticut’s hospitals certainly seem up to the task of providing complementary therapies; even a smaller hospital like Torrington’s 109-bed Charlotte Hungerford Hospital offers free hand and foot massages in its chemotherapy infusion suite and hypnosis to help patients deal with stress and anxiety.

What exactly is a complementary therapy? Anything that doesn’t fall within the realm of conventional, Western medicine. That can include one-on-one education and counseling, naturopathic medicine, nutritional counseling, yoga, meditation, art therapy, wig fittings, post-surgery bra and prosthetic fittings, massage therapy, hypnosis, fitness classes—even advocacy for uninsured patients. Many of these services are free while some are offered at a nominal fee after a prescribed time period (after three Reiki treatments at Norwalk Hospital, for example, women may opt to pay for more). Some facilities provide services to women treated for cancer at other hospitals, too; protocols do vary.

When she was diagnosed in December 2012, Karen O’Neil of Milford says she’d been living “a very healthy and natural life.” So the thing that scared her most was the prospect of “going through chemotherapy and putting toxins in my body.” When the staff at the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center in Fairfield reached out to her with information, education and a sympathetic ear, a sense of relief swept over her, in spite of the treatment that loomed. “From the beginning, they treated me not just as somebody with a disease. They treated me holistically for who I was and what I needed out of treatment,” says O’Neil.

“Although the center’s naturopathic physician, Dr. Veronica Waks, was out of the country, she got in touch with me immediately,” says the 39-year-old mother of twin girls. “And even though I knew about nutrition, she was able to tell me so much more about what foods I should and shouldn’t be eating. She made me feel more empowered.”


The Pfriem Center, which is part of the Yale-New Haven Health System, has provided support to women with breast cancer since 2000, and it’s fair to say its services have snowballed. “We started by making up little bags for newly diagnosed women,” says director Donna J. Twist. Among other things, “we gave them a container of green tea and a special teapot, as well as ‘healing shawls’ made by volunteers to help them through their recovery.” O’Neil can attest to the restorative power of those gifts. When she mentioned that her 10-year-old daughters were vying for use of her shawl, she recalls, “All of a sudden we had three.”

From the way women have responded to the gift of tea, says Twist, “you’d think we gave them a thousand dollars. It just feels medicinal.” When the center added nutrition counseling to its menu of services, she says, “It gave women something they could control. It’s very common for women to feel overwhelmed. They think: ‘I can’t control my cancer, I need to leave this to God and my doctors.’ But if they know what to eat that will make them healthier, it’s a means of helping themselves.”

Based in Fairfield with offices at Bridgeport Hospital and in Trumbull, the Pfriem Center now delivers holistic care (from yoga and mental health counseling to nutrition education and Pilates) to more than 1,100 newly diagnosed cancer patients each year. Says O’Neil of her experience at Pfriem: “Because they took care of so many details, I was able to repair myself physically and emotionally. I was able to put my energy where I needed to.”

Some offerings are more PR-worthy than others and get more press; some are even American Cancer Society-approved.

The “Look Good Feel Better” program fills the bill on both counts. Funded by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, the program provides cosmetics and teaches beauty techniques to cancer patients to help them manage side effects that can negatively impact appearance, including the loss of hair, eyebrows and lashes. A dozen women (of assorted ages, in varying stages of cancer) recently attended a meeting in Norwalk. Each was given a large tote filled with new cosmetics and advice on how to apply them. Tears sprang to the newly made-up eyes of a woman from Westport who until then had been unable to mask the effects of chemotherapy. As she blinked at herself in a hand-held mirror, the other women broke into applause. At present, there are six Connecticut cancer centers that participate in the program.

At the Wilton Family YMCA every Tuesday and Thursday for an hour around lunchtime, four to six women hit the strength-training machines with a sense of purpose. The Wilton Y is one of nine Connecticut facilities participating in a Livestrong Foundation-funded program designed to provide fitness tips and encouragement to cancer patients. Says health and fitness director Mary Ann Genuario, who runs the program: “Livestrong came to us as a grant opportunity. It’s a chance to work with other YMCAs to educate staff and train them, but more than that, it’s an opportunity to give cancer patients a place where they can be comfortable and regain strength and feel alive again.” The 12-week program is held two to three times a year; it includes small-group fitness classes, Zumba, Pilates and strength training, Reiki, massage therapy and nutrition counseling.

YMCA member Patricia Reber, 46, had a radical mastectomy five years ago and afterward, she went to Genuario in tears. “I was overwhelmed,” says Reber, who lives in Wilton. “I remember thinking, ‘If I could just get on the treadmill’… and Mary Ann said, ‘You know you qualify for the Livestrong program.’

“So I started going to the classes; you know it can be intimidating to walk into a gym anyway, let alone if you’ve had cancer, but they just took me in. It evolved in so many ways. I started going to spin class, then I started to run,” she says. “The trainers just believed in me, so I began to believe in myself. It’s a struggle every day. I appreciate life so much more and I want to live the best life I can. I really feel that thanks to the program, I got it back.”

Maureen Helgren of Newtown is an associate professor and chair of the department of physical therapy at Quinnipiac University—and next spring, a nine-year breast cancer survivor. Two things she credits with helping her recovery after surgery: spirituality and exercise. “I got a lot of support through my church,” she says. “I went to meetings, got together with others . . . and did a lot of praying.

“The other thing that I did was get involved with the Healthy Steps program,” she says. Formerly known as the Lebed Method, the low-impact fitness program was designed specifically to help post-operative cancer patients increase flexibility, regain range of motion, improve balance, reduce swelling from lymphodema and stabilize weight. “At the time, there were no classes available, so I got trained with a friend and started teaching it. Physically, it was the right thing to do, but more than that, I can’t tell you how much I got out of the community of women, the fellowship with other survivors.” The Healthy Steps program is now offered at several Connecticut locations, including The Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, where Helgren teaches classes.

At the end of the day, says Norwalk Hospital’s Mary Heery, helping women through the cancer journey can be very rewarding.

“Breast cancer is a treatable, curable cancer—that’s something that’s changed over the last 20 or 30 years,” she says. “And over time, women have gotten together and said to other women, ‘I tried this,’ or ‘that worked for me.’ We simply provide the therapies and services that work. Success breeds success.”

Her colleague, oncologist Richard Zelkowitz, sums up the holistic path to treatment at the Smilow Center, where he’s a breast-cancer specialist. He allows that any cancer diagnosis can be devastating, but promises newly diagnosed patients that his staff will be there to meet all of their needs. “If I told them that this was going to be the best time they ever had, I’d be lying,” he says. “What I can tell them is that we will do everything we can to make it suck as little as possible. That, we can do.”


Healthy Living: Beyond Cancer Treatment

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