Adopting a healthy lifestyle along with good nutrition is an important measure for every individual but especially for people being treated for cancer. Many factors related to the cancer itself and the treatment may affect appetite, the body’s ability to tolerate certain foods and to use nutrients. It is hard to tell how cancer will impact someone’s nutritional status as it varies from individual to individual. Good nutrition can help someone feel better, maintain body weight so they can receive treatment, tolerate treatment-realted side effects and help them recover as quickly as possible. At the Morris I. Franco Community Cancer Center, we offer nutritional counseling for our clients by Registered Dieticians going through treatment and post treatment.
The American Cancer Society visited the Community Cancer Center and participated in a round table discussion where Leslie Salem Mansour, cancer survivor and a volunteer at the Center, recounts, “We spoke in turns, sharing what motivates us to volunteer. One woman said that she believes in giving back to society. Another spoke of her mother’s death from the disease and how she wishes to help others. When it came to my turn, I told the truth. I said, ‘Nancy Sutton, one of the main founders of the Center, is my friend and she forces me to be a better person. I mean, she took this awesome idea of creating the Cancer Center and made it a reality; and there are no people in the world like the staff over there.”
When asked how often Nancy calls on her to help out, she quickly replied, “Every minute! She gets me in there.”
All kidding aside, Leslie is very appreciative of her involvement at the Center. “We are all so busy, but when I help others, I feel good,” Leslie says. “When you do something for someone else, you feel better about yourself. The Cancer Center helps both the people who come in for help and the volunteers.”
Leslie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s in 2003. Immediately she called us, and they connected her with the right doctors. “It was very comforting to know that in an emergency there was someone outside of my family that could think clearly. It is a very, very important thing.”
Leslie volunteers her time at the Center in a variety of ways. She is a “Caring Connections” participant, which means that she serves as a mentor for cancer patients going through an experience similar to Leslie’s. Mentors are in charge of seeing to the client’s needs, whether it be for help with dinners, homework with their children, errands, or for accompaniment on doctor visits.
Leslie also shares her talent as a makeup artist at the Center’s beauty salon. One of her most gratifying moments was when she applied makeup for a very young client who was battling cancer. She wanted to look good for her friend’s wedding. “When I finished, she looked in the mirror and smiled from ear to ear. She said, ‘My G-d! I look like myself again!’ That day I really felt like I made a difference.” Leslie says.
“I have a funny memory too,” Leslie recounts. “Once after I made up one of the cancer patients, she said, ‘You made me look too good! No one is going to feel sorry for me now!”
The spirit of this story is quite reflective of Leslie’s general attitude. “In this situation, you have a choice. You can laugh or you can cry. A positive attitude keeps you going. You’ve gotta laugh.”
Leslie’s vibrant personality and her generous smile compete with her animated blue eyes. Her words spill out like an overflowing candy bowl; every word is colorful, sweet, and worthy of savoring.
“I used to keep everything in, but I learned that I have less stress when I let it out. Actually, my family wishes I’d put some back in!” she says.
Leslie tells of her first meeting with the doctor, “I was shocked to learn that I had cancer, because I was a vegan for ten years; I didn’t drink and I exercised daily. The doctor instantly said that I should have been having more fun! He asked me what my hobbies were and emphasized that going out with friends did not count as a hobby. I learned from that meeting, that good health is connected to effective stress release. He explained to me that you have to have time for yourself actually doing something you love.”
Leslie reflects on why Hashem gave her this challenge in life, “Sometimes I think that He wanted me to speak openly to others, because I can. I once had a conversation with a woman who did not tell anyone about her condition. Of course her husband and children knew, but because she did not want anyone to feel sorry for her, she kept her entire situation a secret. We ended up speaking for an hour and I know this was an enormous relief for her.”
Leslie firmly believes that cancer is like any other obstacle in life and that it is possible to go on and lead a healthy, productive life. She says, “It is just another bump in the road and just as with other things, hopefully you will move on and come out wiser.”
Another lesson Leslie tries to express to those battling cancer is that while others may be there to alleviate the difficulties, at the end of the day, each person is alone and has to get himself or herself better. She stresses that the attitude to take must not be: ‘I CAN get better’, but rather: ‘I WILL get better.’”
Leslie’s advice to those who want to help someone they know who is dealing with cancer is, “Don’t ask if there is anything you can do. Rather, call a close relative of the person and find out how to help in a meaningful way. You can also call the Cancer Center and see if you can add to their efforts. Also, sending a card or a text is a nice, non-invasive way to show someone that you care.”
When Leslie was sick, people made very special efforts for her. They even sent her gifts. She tells of a group of women that chipped in and bought her a strand of pearls; to this day, it is her most cherished piece of jewelry. She says, “I never heard or thought of doing something like that, but it really did cheer me up!”
Leslie is very appreciative of how special and supportive our community is. When her doctor expressed amazement at how quickly she recovered from her disease, she told him, “I’m not surprised. Do you know how many people are praying for me?”
Once she was in the supermarket and she saw an acquaintance coming toward her. As usual, they each had their shopping lists, shopping carts, and other things on their minds. Leslie recalls that she considered remaining in her own world and walking right by, but just as she was contemplating this, the other girls said, “Hi. How are you feeling? I want you to know that I pray for you every day, xxxxx bat xxxx . I’m so glad to see you looking so good!”
From that uplifting experience, Leslie says, “I learned that it is important to take the time to be a nice person and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to give back to a community I cherish.”
As a yoga instructor and a former cancer patient I’d like to share my experience of how yoga has helped me and how yoga can benefit those battling cancer. Three years ago I was feeling an intense pain in my right shoulder, and after a series of visits to doctors and an MRI, I discovered that I had a cancerous tumor in my right shoulder. I was 34 years old at the time of my diagnosis. The tumor needed to be removed along with the bones and muscles of my right shoulder. If the prosthetic shoulder replacement that I was scheduled to receive didn’t take, then I was in jeopardy of losing my entire right arm. My entire world view changed; contemplating my short and long term was daunting. Before (and then after) my surgery, I faced intensive chemotherapy treatment. As I underwent my chemotherapy I remember noticing all the healthy people around me. I tried avoiding the “why me?” but that question was inevitable.
I began to feel angry, depressed, and afraid. After my surgery and treatment I needed to regain my sense of self -- and thankfully I had my training in yoga (in addition to the wonderful support of my family, friends, and community) as a source of strength to find my way back to my former self. The physical aspects of yoga helped me strengthen my body. The breathing and meditation dimensions of yoga helped center my mind so I could face my emotions with greater clarity. The body, mind and spirit connection that yoga embraces began to enhance my sense of wellbeing.
Yoga is offered as a therapy for patients undergoing radiation or chemotherapy (or both) at the Cancer Center, where I am privileged to teach. Yoga therapy can strengthen ones immune system and help speed up the healing process. Yoga poses and breathing exercises, coupled with a healthy diet, can significantly enhance traditional cancer treatments. The centering relaxation that yoga provides may help cancer patients achieve the peace needed to accept the journey their bodies are experiencing, and help patients understand that their circumstances will change and evolve.
In terms of physical improvements my yoga students say that they experience:
Researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center focused on 61 women who had surgery for breast cancer in addition to six weeks of follow-up radiation treatment. Thirty women were assigned to a test group that participated in a yoga class twice a week. The others did not. At the end of six weeks, the women who practiced yoga were able to lift groceries, walk a mile, and perform other physical activities. They felt less fatigue during the day and were able to sleep better at night. The ones who did not had significantly lower energy levels and faired far worse than those following a regular regimen of yoga classes.
We do a lot of chest and shoulder opening exercises. The relaxation poses help with nausea, a common side-effect of chemotherapy treatment. There are energizing poses designed to fight fatigue, strengthening poses to combat atrophy, and breathing techniques to help balance the nervous system. A few breathing exercises and spinal twists can help to alleviate fear, combat anger and reduce anxieties. The person walking into the class is not the same person walkingout of the class.
Yoga is particularly beneficial to cancer patients undergoing treatment. It can greatly enhance cancer treatment success, helping the patient direct less energy toward self-pity and more energy toward getting better. It enables a patient to feel rejuvenated with a positive outlook on life.
Among the many wonderful services and workshops the Cancer Center offers to its clients is art therapy. Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Through engagement with art materials such as paint, chalk, oil pastels, collage and clay, the group participants are encouraged to express feelings related to their illness. Art offers a non-threatening and creative means of self-expression. Sometimes it can be difficult to verbally communicate feelings. Having an alternative means of self-expression, and having the art product as a visual reference, can assist clients in coming to a greater acceptance and understanding of the self. Creating artwork within a group context offers the clients the opportunity to find support and recognition from one another.
Art therapy helps cancer patients to improve their quality of life, and to discover inner strengths that can assist them in handling recurring stressors related to their illness. Art can be enjoyable and relaxing, offering relief from anxiety as clients become immersed in their artistic process. Clients’ participation in art therapy sessions at the Cancer Center say how much they enjoy using art materials, including those who claim that they are not artistic. More importantly, the clients appreciate the emotional support and various perspectives of their fellow group members.
Some days, cancer patients come in feeling sad, angry, or depressed, and they seem ashamed of their feelings. They may hide these feelings from family members so as not to burden them with the weight of their emotions. Art therapy sessions provide a safe, non-judgmental space where clients can vent their feelings without feeling guilty. They learn that it is better to express rather than suppress emotions. Often, other group members will jump in to support the one in need of comfort. Speaking with optimistic group members who are determined to battle cancer is inspiring both to clients and therapists alike.
Sometimes progress is evident within a single art therapy session. The artwork serves as visual testimony to the progress. In a recent session, one group member began creating an image in pencil that she described as a “bad” picture, because it related to some of her negative emotions. She shared some of her fears during a particularly hard time in her life. When another group member offered her words of encouragement, she began to experiment with other art materials. Within the same session she created a beautiful picture of flowers using watercolor paints. Her second picture was colorful and full of life, filled with images that symbolized growth. She left the session with renewed enthusiasm, stating that she looked forward to meeting again next time!
Isn’t it fascinating how a life can instantly change forever so unexpectedly? Someone may win the lottery, by chance meet a future spouse, sadly lose a loved one, or suddenly learn of a devastating diagnosis. These life-altering experiences can stir up feelings, fears, and challenges for the individual directly involved, as well as for the surrounding network of family and friends. When it is a joyful event that touches our lives, we are only too happy to embrace it and share it with those close to us. We even allow others in to share our pain when experiencing the darkness of a deep loss, with the ritual of sitting Shiva ensuring that we do so.
A serious diagnosis, like cancer, is a unique life-changing experience that can leave us feeling scared, alone, and somewhat different. Often under such stress, we may “choose” to retreat into a lonely, scary place, and in essence shut out the world. In that darkness, we tend to mull over all our fears and what-ifs, and a distrust of our own mortality begins to settle in. Thoughts of a scary and unpredictable world flood our minds and the earth no longer feels sturdy enough for us to stand on. During times like this, it is crucial to remember that life does go on! Once completing the tasks of accepting the reality of our loss (of life as we once knew it), and allowing ourselves to experience the pain of our grief, we can then ultimately adjust to our new environment, living and appreciating our new reality.
Hearing the words “you have cancer” can create an instant sense of utter powerlessness, thus triggering a sensory overload of hopelessness and panic that are potent enough to paralyze us. Shock, denial, disbelief, and anger are all normal reactions to such distressing news. Daily functioning gets interrupted as we find it difficult to eat, sleep, and process information. The magic of time tends to give us the perspective we need, making it possible for us to internalize the new realm we have reluctantly stepped into. Once the reality of the situation begins to settle in, many of us feel an overwhelming need to become as informed as possible. This empowering education enables us to make better decisions and gives us a sense of desperately needed control over our lives. With the resolution of important decisions and the commencement of treatment comes a sense of hope as we gradually take back some power.
We are no longer passive victims, but active participants with a personal goal of survival.
Coping during such distressing times can be quite difficult. You may find some of the following techniques helpful. Take one day at a time; try to stay focused on the tasks of the day; any big task can seem overwhelming till you break it down into manageable parts. Get lots of rest; studies show that sleep helps boost the immune system, improves fatigue, and generally enhances coping skills. Be well-informed and educate yourself; this will help to mentally prepare you for each event, and help you to become less fearful and more self-confident; knowledge is empowering – the more we know, the more in control we feel. Have a good support system; an important aspect of health is our sense of connection to other people; we need to feel loved, secure, and happy; seek formal support if you feel you need it (i.e. support groups, individual therapy). Learn to accept help; others can wash your dishes and cook your meals - only you can fight your cancer. Try to stay positive, but remember that low periods will occur. Try to see the humor in things; studies show that laughing lowers the level of stress hormones and is good for you. It is important to rely on your own ways of coping that have always helped you. From talking things out to quietly meditating...if it works for you, do it. But if what you are doing or are used to doing is not working for you, do not hesitate to seek help in finding other ways to cope.
As crazy as it may seem, a cancer diagnosis can have a silver lining. Many survivors have reported positive and enriching outcomes emerging from their ordeals. Some of the enlightening experiences these people report are coming to the realization of how precious life really is, finding meaning in life and enjoying every second, going from living life passively to living life actively, appreciating the simple things in life and looking for new things to enjoy all of the time. Facing a life-threatening diagnosis has led many to develop strengths, skills, and attitudes they never knew they had or needed. Nobody wants to have cancer, but cancer is a reality of life, and the reality of it is that it is not a death sentence, that most people with cancer do go on to live long lives, and that some good could be part of the experience.