Healthy Living: Beyond Cancer Treatment
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“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.”