When Sharon Morrison, author of Even the Eyebrows? was first diagnosed with breast cancer her determination to stay as fit and healthy as possible throughout her treatment lead her to discover the world of reflexology and the power of complementary therapies.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. It was malignant, a grade three, so once the tumour had been removed, I discussed my post operative treatment with my oncologist: I was going to have eight sessions of chemotherapy, over a six month period, followed by 20 days of radiotherapy. I knew that chemotherapy was likely to be quite debilitating for several months ahead and that I probably wasn’t going to feel too great, but I was determined to carry on working, so I thought I should to talk to other people who’d been there and find out how I could make this experience as comfortable as possible.
So I started reading about complementary therapies which work alongside chemotherapy to help your body cope with the side effects of the drugs and generally make you feel better. These therapies essentially break down into two areas, psychological and physical and incorporate the following disciplines:
Any of these can be used throughout the term of your chemotherapy (the physical treatments should only be used on healed tissue) as long as it helps to make you feel great at a time when you know you are going to feel rubbish. The psychological approach is invaluable if you find the reality of cancer hard to handle. You need to be able to discuss or express your feelings, if not with family and friends, then with professional therapists. Only by getting your head straight can you feel more positive about your situation, avoid depression and take the three-weekly treatments more stoically. I never felt down or horrified at the thought of my treatment, for me the worst was over; the cancer had been removed, I was going to live and the chemotherapy was a very necessary evil, so self-help groups or counselling would have been wasted on me. Besides, I talked about my cancer and treatment openly and easily from the outset and had many kind souls whose only intention in life, it seemed to me at the time, was to listen, sympathise and support. Not everyone would find themselves with such a network of minders, so I count myself lucky.
No surprise then that I was immediately drawn to the physical therapies, essentially those that could, in different circumstances, be regarded as pampering. Who wouldn’t want a regular massage, especially with aromatherapy oils? I would even add manicures, pedicures and visits to the hairdresser to the list too; the latter was not an experience worth having for me as I lost my hair. But the thought of an hour’s pampering, with no special occasion in sight, sounded like heaven. I had heard from one of my chemotherapy nurses – way in advance of having treatment – that one of her patients had had reflexology during chemotherapy and found it very helpful. I knew vaguely that reflexology was based on Ancient Egyptian, Indian and Chinese foot massage techniques and that each part of the foot corresponds to specific organs, glands, bones and muscles. So, by applying pressure to one part of the foot, pain or symptoms could be relieved in another part of the body. Reflexology could also restore and maintain the body’s natural equilibrium. Hmmm.
Frankly the thought of someone playing with my feet and toes for an hour meant more to me than maintaining natural equilibrium ever could; I just had to check it out. And that’s when I encountered my first problem. I rang a couple of reflexologists in my area, but they refused to treat me. Why? Because I was going to have chemotherapy! They believed the act of massage would counteract the benefits of the chemotherapy, or in the worst case, cause the cancer to spread through the circulatory and lymphatic systems. I was appalled and angered by this. How could a chemotherapy nurse, dealing with cancer patients every single day, recommend this, and a reflexologist or masseur contradict it? I asked my oncologist about it and he told me that reflexology could never, ever affect the efficacy of the drugs, and I should go ahead and have as many sessions as I wanted.
I finally found a great reflexologist, and we chatted about what the chemotherapy drugs were going to do to my system and how this form of treatment could help. She told me the most important thing was to ensure my immune system was constantly tuned up, because of the battering it was going to take. She also wanted to help me recover properly on my right side (my tumour was in my right breast), concentrating on the shoulder and breast specifically. So, one week before my first chemotherapy session, she came to my home and gave me reflexology. She was very gentle and explained where I was, well, out of tune I suppose, and what she was going to do to counteract this. After an hour, which was perfect bliss, I was left thirsty and tired. Thirsty because this therapy, like massage, helps to eliminate toxins and is therefore also dehydrating; tired, because it was so completely relaxing.
I had reflexology one or two days before each chemo session and these treatments were hugely beneficial to me. I enjoyed them, looked forward to them even, and didn’t really suffer too badly with the side effects of chemotherapy. I also got a whole new vocabulary. Now I was talking about meridians (energy zones to you) and chakras (we’ve got seven) like they were going out of style.
How much of my great reaction to the effects of chemotherapy is down to reflexology is hard to quantify, because I used other “therapies” too. My reflexologist told me that it was very important to get plenty of fresh air in my body to aid my immune system whilst it was being attacked by the drugs. Longevity was now very important to me, so I did something that would help on both counts: three mornings a week, before work I would fast walk two and a quarter miles around the village. This gave me fresh air and exercise. Once the treatment was over I began jogging, building up to 15 miles a week – an amazing feat for a natural sloth like me. I’ve been told that jogging’s a dreadful exercise that jars the bones and damages the joints, and I agree, I think jogging stinks, but all the aches and pains associated with chemotherapy disappeared thanks to jogging. And I got a real sense of satisfaction when I’d completed the circuits; I was fitter and healthier than I’d ever been.
In 2009, when I went for my five-year check-up with my oncologist, he felt a lump in my other breast. It was tiny, I couldn’t feel a thing and it didn’t show up on the mammogram either, but it was there. After a biopsy, I was told I had a malignant tumour; it was a grade three like before, so I knew what to expect. As depressing as this scenario was, I knew with the treatment I’d be ok, so I made the call to my reflexologist to make sure I had my sessions booked in advance; but I also decided to carry on jogging, instead of taking it easy, during chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I didn’t go mad, my body wouldn’t let me anyway, and initially I was constantly out of breath then, halfway through my treatment, jogging became easier. Yes, the chemo made me feel awful again, but being fitter helped me manage the physical and mental pressures of dealing with breast cancer second time around.
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