Writing through cancer: using writing as therapy (and a way to help others)

In this guest blog, Sara explains how writing helped her cope with cancer – and provides some tips on how you can get started writing too!


In three months, my book is being launched. In fact, people can actually pre-order it on Amazon now. I keep having a sneaky peak to check it’s still there. It is. There’s a picture of the cover (a photo of my feet in fluffy white socks) with my name in big capital letters. Which is really weird. Weird in so many ways. Had someone told me three years ago that I’d be a published author I would have laughed (very loudly) in their face. You see, I’m not what I would call a ‘writer’. I’m not one of those people who’s lived with an unwritten novel sitting inside them and I’ve never really had any aspirations to write poetry, short stories or even magazine articles. I’ve never studied creative writing and my day job only involves the legal kind of writing. But then something horrible happened to me. I had cancer. I started to write about it. And I haven’t really stopped.

me

Guest writer Sara started writing after she was diagnosed with cancer.

I didn’t sit down one day and just write it all out. I jotted things down over the course of treatment: I described my emotions and how I was feeling; I recorded my side effects at length; I wrote long gratitude lists; I wrote about my anger, resentment and fear; I recorded the way in which treatment was given to me; I made lengthy, detailed to-do lists; I ranted about people who upset me with their thoughtlessness; I made lots of exciting life-after-cancer lists; I wrote about my hopes and dreams; and I recorded my day to day observations and general musings about life, death and everything in between. And all this writing made me feel so much better.

Then, towards the end of my treatment before I went back to work, I took all these notes and I set up a website, wrote a book and starting writing articles for cancer charities and organisations. I realised that whilst the writing was helping me, it might also help other people who were going through similar things.

If you’re going through cancer treatment, or you’ve finished treatment and you’re trying to put your life back together, why not consider writing about your experience?

  1. Remember that you are writing for whatever reason that you choose. So, if you don’t want anyone to read it then they don’t have to – you can keep your writing private. Nobody needs to ever read it; you could even ceremoniously destroy it in a defiant move against cancer.
  2. Everyone can write about their experience. You don’t need to be a writer. You just need a pen and paper, or a laptop, or a phone. You don’t need to be perfect at grammar and spelling. Just remember to write what is important to you, write from the heart and be honest.
  3. Use your writing to stay in control. Going to hospital for consultant appointments, oncologist appointments, scans, blood tests, clinical trial appointments, counsellor sessions, and everything else can be so overwhelming. Sometimes it can be helpful to take notes at these appointments and then rewrite the details into a dedicated notebook/computer folder so that everything flows from one appointment to the next and you can keep on top of what is going on, rather than feeling completely out of control.
  4. Try keeping a gratitude journal. Having cancer can feel so unfair and cause all sorts of negative emotions to build up inside you. Sometimes it might help to remember things for which you are grateful. And on the bad days, re-reading this ongoing list might help to lift you out of your slump.
  5. Don’t be afraid you write down your feelings and emotions, your fears and worries. If you write them out, then they’re out of your head and you can let them go. It might even help lift the weight of anxiety off your chest a little.
  6. What to write? If you like the idea of writing about your experience but you don’t know where to start, here are a few prompts to get you going:
  • How did you feel to be diagnosed with cancer at such a young age?
  • How did it feel to tell your parents, siblings, children that you had cancer?
  • How have friends treated you since you told them about your diagnosis?
  • If you’ve lost your hair, how did you feel about it?

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    Sara, during treatment.

  • What has having cancer made you realise, that perhaps you didn’t before?
  • Have any positive things come out of having cancer?
  • How have the side effects affected you?

7. Use your writing to express your feelings towards others. Anyone going through cancer knows that unfortunately not all your friends step up and rally around. This is incredibly hurtful and can knock your confidence to an even lower level. This is not what you need when you have bigger things to worry about. It can eat away at the back of your mind with thoughts like, “Why hasn’t she got in touch?” “Why am I not invited out with my friends anymore?” “What’s wrong with me?” It might help to write a letter to these friends telling them how you feel and why you’re upset with them. Don’t send the letter, just burn it or rip it to shreds and move on.

8. Don’t forget to write about the good as well as the bad. For example, it’s nice to write about all the lovely things that people do for you (like bringing you food or driving you to appointments) and it’s nice to read these back to remember how important you are to these people.

9. Consider whether you’d like to share your writing with others. Maybe you’d like to set up a blog (which is fairly straightforward using one of the DIY blog platforms like WordPress) or a Facebook page. With both these types of blogs you can share your writing with either just your friends and family, or open it up to anyone. If you don’t want to set up something yourself, get in touch with one of the cancer charities or cancer organisations about sharing your writing as a guest blog on their website (I’m always happy to post guest blogs about breast cancer for my website, tickingoffbreastcancer.com and, of course, you can always get in touch with Shine!).

10. Don’t be shy about sharing your writing with others. It can be a bit daunting to start with, but at the end of the day people going through cancer want to read about the experiences of others who’ve been through the same thing. They’re looking for reassurance, support, honesty and advice so if you can provide these, they’ll want to read what you write. And remember these words of encouragement from me:

You have something to say, so you should say it.

Even if it just helps one person, you are making a difference.

You have a voice, use it.

People will appreciate the advice of someone who has been through it.


Sara is the author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, a book about juggling a busy life with treatment for primary breast cancer. This book follows the physical and emotional impact of breast cancer on Sara’s life, and provides practical help by way of checklists at the end of each chapter. The book is out 26 September 2019 but you can pre-order the book now from Hashtag Press, Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles. Sara is also the founder of www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com, a website dedicated to supporting those who don’t know which way to turn for help after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis; those who are overwhelmed by the breast cancer resources online and those just looking for a comfortable, safe, calm place to turn for help. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

My post-cancer PTSD time-bomb

In this guest blog post, Shine community member Jen shares her experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after breast cancer, and how these feelings affect her upcoming brain surgery for an unrelated condition.


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Meet Jen!

It seems that having cancer – and more specifically, months of treatment to be rid of that cancer – leaves you with a ticking PTSD time-bomb for future serious medical issues. No shit Sherlock, I hear you scream! I know – it seems obvious, doesn’t it? PTSD is just another one of the many, many things that nobody prepares you for when you walk through that hospital door after cancer treatment, merrily waving your goodbyes and looking forward to returning to your life. I had cancer at 36 and, touch wood, I am all clear so far. Given this diagnosis, it would seem pretty feasible that I might come up against another serious medical issue at some point. Why would nobody think to address the trauma of cancer? Mental health is yet another thing that sadly falls by the wayside for younger adults with cancer.

I’m sure that my experience of PTSD will resonate with others – and I hadn’t really dealt with, acknowledged, or understood the trauma until very recently. It makes perfect sense that what happens to us after cancer is going to be influenced by our experiences of diagnosis and treatment, just as all our other life experiences shape us and influence how we react and respond to future events.

I’ve learned that the actual ‘trauma’ of post-traumatic stress might be something that was not initially perceived as trauma. Trauma can be something that creeps up on you over time: it grows with you, in you and through you, slowly and steadily like a fungus. When you get diagnosed with cancer, there’s no time to deal with your feelings about it. Instead, you batten down the hatches and get on with getting through whatever you have to get through. There is a lot of information to take on board, but pretty much everything is out of your control. You are swept along on a rollercoaster ride from hell and when it ends, you are just thankful that you are still standing –  regardless of the state you are in, and the trauma that may have occurred along the way. You process your emotions in the months and years afterwards, and the trauma creeps up on you unexpectedly.

I have known for years that eventually I will need surgery on a slow-growing, benign brain tumour. It’s in a very awkward place. I have a condition called Schwannomatosis. It was diagnosed after cancer, so it seems that I am doubly special and unique! I have yearly scans and appointments with a specialist team of neurologists, and then I shelve it away for another twelve months and get on with living my best life. I’m pretty good at that! I genuinely don’t dwell on it. I had thought that this pattern would go on for many years to come so, other than the annual drama of getting a cannula into my chemo-destroyed veins (and a small amount of pain from time to time), I could almost live in happy denial. Unfortunately, in September 2018 this all changed: the little bugger had grown significantly in the past two years and if it continued, my eyesight would quickly become compromised. This means that I now need fairly complex and somewhat risky neurosurgery.

I am great at going to appointments and discussing all the details, from options to risks. But as I get closer to the operation, I’m not entirely sure how I am going to be able to let it happen to me! I know I have to, right? I know I do. It has to be done. It’s been planned and discussed, and I’ve been waiting for months. But the thought of having my body cut into again, damaged and broken, and drugs being pumped into my fragile veins? It just makes me feel nauseous, and that feeling triggers vivid memories!

It has been five years this month since my breast cancer surgery. Beforehand I had had four months of chemotherapy, and post-surgery I had five weeks of radiotherapy. My body has healed and my hair has regrown (sadly not my eyebrows, but I do have rather fabulous tattooed ones now!). I still ache though. I have radiotherapy damage in the bones and muscle on my chest wall, and I’m reminded of this when my kids hug me a little too tight. I have permanently painful toenails – first because they fell off during chemo, then from walking around the Isle of Wight (stupid me), and then from walking up Kilimanjaro (double stupid me!). I bruise easily, and my joints ache due to the drugs I take to keep the cancer from returning.

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Jen and her family

My youngest daughter has to hold my left hand rather than my right as she tends to tug and it hurts the back of my hand. My hand has never had a chance to recover from the onslaught of cannulas. I mention these things not as a sob story, but to explain that my instinct is to be very protective of myself.

I hate it when I hurt. I hate getting badly bruised if I clumsily walk into something. It makes me mad: disproportionally mad or disproportionally upset, depending on the situation. The thought of rocking up to a hospital voluntarily to check myself in for a lengthy, complex surgical procedure is obviously horrific – with or without the prior experience of cancer. Alongside these feelings comes an overwhelming, intrinsic, sense of self-preservation. I just don’t want my body to suffer anything more – it’s bounced back from so much, and I’m so thankful. This time it feels like I am choosing to do this to my body, and it will never forgive me!

Along with all these thoughts comes cancer guilt: the guilt that comes with survival when those with the same cancer and prognosis as you have gone. The guilt of remaining cancer free while friends get secondary diagnoses. The guilt of forgetting to be grateful every single day because there are people hoping for just one more day of life. The guilt of being stressed about one single surgery when there are people going through far worse in a desperate attempt to simply survive.

I have to have surgery. It sucks, but at least it isn’t cancer this time.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, we’d love to connect with you! If you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s and have had a cancer diagnosis, why not join our private Facebook group

Wellbeing and wildlife: how nature helps me feel better

In this guest blog post, Shine member Hazel writes about how getting outside helped her to cope with treatment for cervical cancer.


It was 2pm. I’d gotten out of bed at around midday, but I hadn’t bothered to get dressed yet or even brush my teeth. The cloudless blue sky and warming sunlight beckoned me to leave the house, but they were hidden behind my tightly shut window blinds. I sighed, disappointed in myself for not making the most of the glorious weather, and wrote it off as ‘one of those days’.

As the daylight faded I told myself tomorrow would be different. I set my alarm, laid out my clothes and put my binoculars and camera into my backpack. Tomorrow I would go out for a walk.

Chemo

Hazel on the chemo ward

After being diagnosed with cervical cancer in November I underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, twenty-five fractions of pelvic radiotherapy and three doses of brachytherapy (internal radiotherapy). After finishing treatment in January the reality of the whole experience sunk in and early-onset menopause began. Anxiety, hot flushes and night sweats, coupled with aches in my pelvis, often make it challenging to get a good night’s sleep. These conditions give me go-to excuses for not leaving the house, especially on gloomy, cold days, despite knowing that getting out of the house makes me feel so much happier. Listening to birdsong, looking for wildflowers and immersing myself in nature are the things that help me forget about cancer and just enjoy being alive.

The next morning, true to my intentions, I headed out to one of my favourite local nature reserves. It was a beautiful day again. I had another chance to get out and feel better. I walked under a canopy of huge beech trees with their smooth grey trunks flanked by stocky holly trees, listening out for birdsong as I went. Among the various tweets and chirps cascading around the woodland my attention was caught by a series of loud, high pitched ‘pip-pip’ calls. Over the past few years I’ve made an effort to learn the songs and calls of birds (you don’t need to know which bird is singing to appreciate the wonderful sound though, of course!). I recognised the ‘pips’ as being the call of a nuthatch: a beautiful little bird with blue-grey feathers on their backs, pale peach plumage on their bellies and a striking black stripe running across their eye. I looked up into the trees, scanning the branches in the direction of the sound. I soon spotted not one but two nuthatches, a male and a female, using their beaks to prise bark off a silver birch tree in which they were busily hopping from branch to branch. I stood perfectly still, trying not to disturb them.

I get so much joy from watching wild animals going about their daily lives, gaining insight into their behaviour. There’s no space for anxiety about the recurrence of cancer or worrying about the future in those moments because my full concentration is given to the bird, butterfly or other natural wonder that I am in the presence of. After a few minutes one of the nuthatches flew over to a tree, clinging to the bark with its powerfully clawed little feet. It cautiously paused to look at me before it began stuffing the bark it had collected into an old woodpecker-made hole in the tree’s trunk. They were building a nest! I’d passed that hole-laden tree many times and wondered what creatures might make use of it; now I was witnessing something I had never seen before and it felt like such a privilege. It brought a smile to my face which lasted the rest of that day, and returns now as I recall the details of the encounter to write about it. This is the kind of moment I need to remind myself of when I am struggling for the motivation to get out of bed!

More recently, after the familiar difficulty of getting an appointment at my GP surgery, a sympathetic doctor prescribed me an HRT drug. I could have hugged him, I was so overjoyed at the thought of getting some undisturbed, hot-flush-free sleep. Unfortunately, upon consulting every pharmacist in the locality, I found the drug was unavailable with no timescale for when it might be back on the shelves. In my despair I sat and cried in my car.

I knew I didn’t want to be out walking on reserves looking and feeling as I did, so I sought solace among the plants and wildlife at home in the garden. Gazing into the pond I watched smooth newts: males with their striking, spotted breeding season colouration, and sand-coloured females. Their tails quivered, propelling them to the surface. They paused, suspended just long enough to take a gulp of air before descending back to the bottom of the pond, leaving a trail of tiny bubbles. There were also dragonfly nymphs, formidable predators in this tiny underwater world, sitting motionless and deadly. Some of our largest dragonflies spend up to four years in this form before crawling up the stems of plants and emerging as the beautiful adult winged insects (which live for a maximum of only seven months). With very little effort, my sadness and frustration had diminished, replaced by the childlike wonderment of watching newts and dragonfly nymphs.

At sea

Hazel working at sea as a wildlife guide in 2017,
specialising in whales, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds

Of course we are all entitled to days when we just don’t feel like going out, getting dressed or getting out of bed, and there is no shame in that. Our bodies need rest and time to heal. Comfy clothes, chocolate and binge-watching your favourite TV series can be hugely therapeutic! For me though, there’s nothing like getting outside, even if just for half an hour, to seek out wildlife encounters and marvel at nature. In those magical moments my cancer might as well not exist; I don’t give it a thought because I am consumed in marvelling at the beauty of the natural world – and I feel so much better for it.

 

Taking care: How and why ‘carers’ also need support

A few years ago, the partners of a couple of Shine members approached us about starting a ‘Plus Ones’ group. Having cancer is tough, they noted – but so is supporting someone with cancer. We started our Plus Ones group online and it’s continued to grow over the years. As we’ve worked more on supporting the supporters, we’ve also learned more about the issues that they can face.

In this blog, Dr. Jason Spendelow (one of Shine’s original Plus Ones) outlines some of the issues that ‘carers’ often face when supporting someone with a life-limiting illness. We know a lot of Plus Ones don’t consider themselves carers (78%, according to a recent survey that Shine carried out!) but we hope this gives you some insight into the support that someone looking after a young adult with cancer might need.


 

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Those who provide significant levels of care to another person are more than twice as likely to suffer from poor health than non-carers.

While carers do report many positive experiences, the physical and psychological wellbeing of this group is often compromised due to the stress associated with the support they provide. Those who provide significant levels of care to another person are more than twice as likely to suffer from poor health than non-carers (Carers UK, 2004). When asked directly, the vast majority (84%) of carers said that caring had a negative impact on their health (Carers UK 2013). Carer wellbeing, then, is a particularly important topic in cancer and other chronic illnesses. Carers provide a huge amount of support to loved ones affected by these illnesses. This means it is even more crucial that we take care of the carers.

Mental & Physical Health

We have an increasingly large pile of research available on carer wellbeing. From this, we know that psychological issues are among the most commonly reported difficulties amongst carers (Stenberg et al 2010). An important concept here is ‘carer burden’, which refers to negative emotional experiences that occur from providing care. The level of carer burden varies from person to person, with higher levels of burden being linked to female carers, living with the care receiver, spending large amounts of time caring, being socially isolated, under financial stress, and having no choice in becoming a carer (Adelman et al 2014).

Carers can experience a range of psychological difficulties. Some of the most common issues tend to be low mood and depressive symptoms, elevated levels of stress and anxiety, and lower quality of life (see for example, Braun et al 2007; Pinquart 2017, and Easter, Sharpe and Hunt 2015). Rates of depressive and/or anxiety disorders are higher amongst adult carers when compared to the general population. These figures do not mean that you are destined to develop such psychological issues, but carers are clearly more vulnerable. In late 2016, Shine carried out a survey of Plus Ones and found that 58% had experienced stress, and 77% had experienced anxiety.

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Shine’s first Plus One workshop covered how to cope with anxiety.

In addition to psychological difficulties, carers can experience decline in their overall physical health. Physical health problems vary and range from fatigue to insomnia, headache and gastrointestinal issues (Jassem et al 2015).

Positive Experiences

Despite the physical and psychological challenges discussed above, many carers can also identify positive aspects of their experience. Some of the reported positive experiences included being able to give back to someone, knowing the person is being well cared for, improved relationships, personal growth, and an enhanced sense of meaning or purpose (American Psychological Association 2018). Finding meaning and purpose is an experience reported across several groups of carers (Carers UK 2004). Being able to help is a source of satisfaction for many carers, while ‘giving back’ to someone and having an equal or reciprocal relationship are other positive outcomes (Spendelow, Adam and Fairhurst 2017; Buchanan et al 2009), Ribeiro and Paul 2008). The relevance to wellbeing is that experiencing positives from caring help people to cope better with the stress that comes their way.

Taking care of yourself

Your wellbeing is influenced by many factors. Believing that just one ‘thing’ is the cause of any experienced psychological difficulties is usually inaccurate and unhelpful. Attempts to improve your wellbeing, therefore, usually involves taking several factors into consideration. Look, I could bang on here about all the things you know you should be doing already: getting plenty of sleep, exercising, and eating vegetables. Yes, this is all true and fundamental to your health. But I won’t repeat the same advice given millions of times already.

Perhaps a more useful strategy is to ask ‘What barriers stop you from taking better care of yourself?’ and, more importantly, ‘What can you do about these barriers?’. Some barriers are physical: for instance, you don’t think you have time to look after yourself. Other barriers are psychological. For example, some carers feel that it is selfish to prioritise themselves over the loved one they support. Asking what barriers exist (and why) helps work out what might have gone wrong with previous failed attempts to take better care of yourself. These barriers need to be directly addressed, otherwise it doesn’t matter how many times you are told to go for a walk and eat some broccoli.

It may be that you need to discuss this issue with a sensible person that you trust in order to make progress with your wellbeing. Having said this, here are a few questions you can ponder to get you thinking more about barriers to better self-care:

  • What emotions might you experience if you put more time into self-care?
  • Why do you think you would experience those particular emotions?
  • What do these emotions say about your attitude to self-care?
  • What would have to change in your life to result in more time given to your wellbeing?
  • How might the wellbeing of the person you support be negatively affected if you spent more time looking after yourself?
  • What would be the worse thing someone could say about you as a carer? How does that influence your self-care?

 The Bottom Line

Carer wellbeing matters, both to the quality of life of the carer, and the wellbeing of the loved one that the carer supports. To cope with the huge challenges brought about by cancer, you need to be thinking of self-care strategies that are positive and sustainable over the long-term. If you fall over, both you and the person you care for will find things even tougher. Thinking about barriers to self-care can be a useful way to better understand your current approach to your health, and how you can improve it.

Jason is a clinical psychologist with a special interest working with people and their carers affected by chronic illness and disability. He also supported his wife through cancer. He runs his practice in Surrey. See more at www.jasonspendelow.com

To join our Shine Plus One Facebook group, click here. To join the mailing list for Shine Plus One events, please email plusone@shinecancersupport.org.

 

How pets can help you cope with cancer

When the going gets ruff, the woofs get going: How pets help us to cope with cancer

Sarah Carlin (33) who has small bowel cancer and lives in Liverpool, explores how Shine members’ furry Florence Nightingales are helping them live better with cancer…


I’ve been dealing with cancer since 2013. It’s as about as much fun as it sounds.

During a particularly dark period recently, I realised that one of the few things capable of raising a genuine smile was my dog Elsie, a Cairns/Yorkie cross with about nine teeth and breath like the bottom of a fishing trawler.

My 50th attempt at taking a selfie with Elsie

Sarah and Elsie

I then remembered all the other times that pets had helped me through. Pre-diagnosis, when I would spend hours lying in bed, throwing up industrial amounts of green bile into a washing-up bowl, my mum’s cat Flo – who, it has to be said, would probably at that stage not have said hello to me in the street if she were human – would come to my bedroom and gently knead me with her little paws. When I was feeling better again, she’d get back to blanking me. During chemo, our family dog Bunk – a rescue Staffie cross who definitely missed his calling as a late 90s emo – would come up to my room and lay a heavy black paw on my stomach, as if to say “I understand”.

With a hunch that I wasn’t the only one being looked after by my pets in this way, I asked the Shine community about their own experiences with furry friends in Shine’s closed Facebook group. It quickly turned into a love-fest about all things on four legs, for the following reasons:

1. They’re a reason to get out of bed (and the house)

Alison's SuzyQ

SuzyQ

Owning a pet dog is like having a weird hybrid of a physical therapist, life coach and in-house dirty-protestor. Crippled by fatigue? So depressed you don’t want to get out of bed? Struggling after a big operation? They don’t want to hear it. They want you out of those PJs and taking them round the block, stat, or they won’t be responsible for the consequences. And they can’t promise that those consequences won’t be coming via their digestive system either. And even pets that don’t need to be walked – like cats and rabbits – need to be fed and watered.

 

The positive impact that this responsibility has can’t be

Fran's George

George

understated. One Shine member, Julie, remembered that her dog Izzy helped her recovery from an operation for bowel cancer by getting her active again just seven days after surgery. Fran, diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia at 29, said her cat George was her “reason for getting out of bed every day, no matter how rubbish [she feels].” And Alison, who had treatment for breast cancer recalled that her cat SuzyQ gave her “a sense of purpose and unconditional companionship”.

2. You can share in their joy – without the complicated feelings

When you have cancer, especially as a younger person, you often feel disassociated from your peers. It’s great spending time with your friends, but sometimes it’s tough seeing the life you could have been living if the C-bomb hadn’t been dropped on you. You know, having babies, having hair, being able to get travel insurance without selling a kidney (which nobody would want to buy anyway, obvs) or just being able to plan something in three months’ time without factoring in worst-case-scenario scan results. Basically, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with, cancer is there in the background like a sinister ostinato, reminding you that life isn’t as you hoped it would be – something that can be really destructive to your relationships and your state of mind.

How pets can help you cope with cancer

Your interactions with pets will carry no such baggage, however. You can truly be in the moment and share in their enthusiasm for life, whether that’s chasing a ball, trying to swallow a piece of cake whole or their absolute joy when you walk through the door after-surely-abandoning-them-forever (a.k.a. going to the shops for half an hour). You can share in their perfectly mundane triumphs with no complicated feelings. Unless, say, you had a real love for Chappie dog food but ate too much after a chemotherapy session once and now you’ve gone right off it. Or you used to love chasing mice but your oncologist has told you to knock it on the head because it’s an infection risk.

3. They bring the lols

How pets can help you cope with cancer

Elsie makes me laugh every day, whether through her world-class meerkat impression, her iron will or the fact that whenever we walk past the British Legion, she always, inexplicably, tries to go in (FFS Elsie, you’re barred!). And I’m not alone. Lisa, who has bone cancer, said her little dog Coco “brings a smile to my face every day…brings happiness and makes every day worth living.” And Christine, who has bowel cancer, said that her bunnies, Marigold and Juniper, “always make me smile even if I’m feeling awful.”

Christine's Marigold & Coco

Marigold and Juniper

 

4. They really care

I was blown away by the number of people in our Facebook who shared stories of the TLC given to them by their pets. There were dogs trying to ease painful legs, horses sensing when their owner was having a bad day and amazingly, given the fact that they have reputation for being the haughtiest of the household pets, an awful lot of very caring cats who would be a real asset to the NHS.

Lyndsey, who has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, remembered that her kitten, Stinky – who she adopted during treatment – would carefully settle into the crook of the arm that didn’t have a PICC line in it and purr her to sleep. Another Shiny, Jo, who has metastatic breast cancer said that her “Bichon baby” Pixie who “curls up with me in bed when I feel poorly and keeps the cuddles coming when I feel low” helps her cope with her situation.

Jo's Pixie

Pixie

5. Sometimes, it seems they can perform their very own PET scans (boom!)

One thing I wasn’t expecting when I put my post up was the number of people who had stories about their pet appearing to try to alert them to the fact they had cancer. Tracey remembered that her cat would always lie on the breast that had cancer pre-diagnosis. Anne’s dogs Buster and Lucky started to repeatedly snuggle into her left armpit, which prompted her to do a self-check and find a lump that was eventually diagnosed as aggressive triple negative breast cancer. And one of Danielle’s dogs kept digging on her leg so much that it prompted her to go to the doctor in case she had some sort of infection. It was actually a chondrosarcoma. That animals can sniff out cancer is actually a recognised phenomenon; some sharp-nosed pets are already being used to assess urine tests in the NHS. You can read more about the science behind it here.

We loved talking about our animals and I’m so glad that I – and so many other Shine members – have pets that are helping us through some very tough times. Here’s to a very furry Christmas and a yappy New Year!

PS We couldn’t fit all the pet photos that were submitted into this story. But they’re below if you want a quick look at the Shine Super Pets!

Breathe and bend! How yoga can help you cope with cancer

Every year, at Shine’s Great Escape, we run morning yoga sessions for our “Escapees”. For many, it’s the first time they’ve tried yoga and most people are pleasantly surprised by how much they get out of it.

In this blog, Stephanie Bartlett shares her experience of starting yoga during her cancer treatment and how it’s helped calm her busy mind.  Want to learn more? Below Stephanie’s blog, we’ve posted some ‘getting started’ tips from Shine’s yoga guru (and podcast host) Tatum de Roeck!


StephAndTheo

Stephanie with son Theo

Last July I was diagnosed with cancer.  As a young and healthy 32 year old, I certainly wasn’t expecting it, though I have learnt very quickly it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are or how ‘healthy’ you thought you were.

Cancer for me has been ‘mind consuming’. In the seven months since my diagnosis, my mind has been consumed with everything cancer related, from the seemingly endless weeks of waiting for test results to the side effects of 18 weeks of chemotherapy to the apprehension of the next course of treatment; there was just no getting away from it.

That was until I discovered yoga. My very first yoga session consisted of some simple breathing techniques and some basic stretching and relaxation. I followed my instructor and it was very peaceful. I found it easy and I soon realised that an hour had passed and I hadn’t thought about cancer.

I can only describe how I felt after my first session as a balloon floating in the sea. I felt present in the here and now.  My mind felt completely empty.  No thoughts had entered my mind the entire time. I had no idea what it felt like to be free of the constant cancer woes until then. I also felt very relaxed, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and like I was finally lightened of the burden.

I continued to practice yoga with my instructor about once a fortnight and before I knew it I had learned a whole yoga flow and every session we were adding to it. I was also learning more how good it was for my mind and body. Post-surgery and during chemotherapy I looked forward to each session as I viewed it as my escape from cancer. I then found myself doing yoga on my own at home in the days in between seeing my instructor – I could finally escape cancer every day. I knew exactly what to do and I loved it.

The truly great thing about yoga is that no matter how I was feeling or how physically able I was (and this changed from week to week, with the effects of surgery or chemotherapy), I was always able to do yoga. And it’s really not about getting one leg wrapped around your neck while balancing in the shape of an elegant swan – rather, it’s all about connecting with yourself and using your mind and body no matter how much you’re able to move.  Basically, we can all do it, no matter how flexible you are.

As a busy and working mum to my five-year-old son, Theo, I’m constantly on the go.  Life is always eventful and there’s no escaping the constant need to be somewhere or do something.  This consumed a lot of my thoughts before cancer and adding cancer to that mix made life even crazier. Yoga enabled me not only to calm down my mind but also to focus on simply moving and breathing.  It lets me forget the chaos that life has thrown at me and it enables me to put into perspective the important things that are worthy of my attention. Most importantly, it also helps me forget about the pointless little things that can fill the gaps.

I have certainly caught the yoga bug; I now know a moon flow, what sun salutation is and can do my warrior poses.  During each of these yoga flows, the actions and breathing are the only things on my mind. Even before the cancer diagnosis I didn’t know it was possible to escape; I’ve always had a busy mind so for me it’s been a real eye opener. Steph1

I cannot recommend yoga enough to anyone going through a cancer diagnosis or treatment – an even those that aren’t. I once thought “oh, yoga is not for me – it’s too airy fairy”.  How wrong I was!  I have even booked myself onto a four day yoga retreat in Spain, as a reward once all my treatment is over. It’ll involve hours of yoga, relaxation and a well needed break in the sun.I genuinely never believed yoga would help me as much as it does but I honestly love what yoga does for me.  Give it a go, you won’t know until you try it!

Stephanie lives with her son, Theo, who is five, and she was one of Shine’s 2017 Escapees. To learn more about the Great Escape, click here. And if you’re interested in trying yoga, read on for a briefing by our yoga instructor (and podcast host) Tatum de Roeck!


Thinking of trying yoga after cancer?

Three months after Tatum de Roeck qualified as a yoga teacher, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Below, she shares her tips for getting started with yoga. Tatum

Even knowing quite a bit about yoga, I was still daunted going into a new class when my body felt so alien. It was tough dealing with feeling physically limited, emotionally all over map and mentally frazzled. What made it easier was having an idea what to expect from a class and how to find the right one.

I now teach yoga as my main job and give classes as part of Shine’s Great Escape weekend. Many Escapees have never done yoga before and the class has given them the chance to find out they rather like it! So for others who think they might fancy giving yoga a whirl here are some tips and thoughts to help make finding the first class a little easier.

Yoga is yoga, right?

Not all yoga is the same. The spectrum of classes range from ones where all the poses involve lying down on the ground with cushions and blocks, to hot sweaty powerful classes that seem to be created for acrobats from Cirque du Soliel.

I’m not flexible, can I still do yoga?

Yes! Yoga isn’t about what it looks like on the outside but how it feels inside your body. You can be one millimetre into a pose and feel the benefit of the stretch. If you feel it, that’s your pose and it is perfect. Someone else might have a different rotation in their hip joint and their legs may impressively flop out, but they may be working on how to engage their muscles instead which might be just as much of a challenge. It’s good to bear in mind since everyone’s body is wildly different (and always changing) we don’t bend to yoga, it is yoga that should bend to us.

Starting Slow

Slow classes give you time to try a pose, see if it’s right for you and adjust as needed. Even if it’s a super relaxing class it gives you a chance to hear some yoga terminology, become familiar with teachers providing different options, and to build confidence for trying the next class.

How do I find a slow class?

If there is a yoga studio nearby I would either pop in or give them a call to ask if they offer a relaxing, slow or gentle classes. Some bigger studios sometimes even offer classes handily named something like ‘yoga for people with cancer’. Most mid-size studios will have great introductory offers of unlimited classes for a couple of weeks. This can be a really useful (and far cheaper) way to try out different classes. Sometimes yoga classes at the gym are unhelpfully labelled ‘yoga’. In these cases its useful to get some more info otherwise you might be in a sweaty power hour territory.

The key things to ask is it is suitable for beginners and is it gentle? If possible it may be good to see if you can briefly contact the teacher before you plan to take the class.

A lot of cancer centres like Maggie’s also offer yoga and if they don’t offer yoga on the premises it’s worth giving them a call to see if they know a place or a teacher they’d recommend.

What do I wear?

The main thing is to wear something comfortable, which doesn’t restrict movement but isn’t too loose. The reason we don’t wear baggy T-shirts is because some of the poses (like a forward fold or child’s pose) will cause loose T-shirts to ride up exposing the stomach and lower back or rising so much it covers your face. Very baggy shorts can also show a bit more than you bargained for. If this happens you spend the class fighting with your clothes which takes away a little of the joy (I’m relaying this from personal experience!).

Getting to the first class early

It’s a good idea to get to your first class 15 minutes early. There will be forms to fill out and it’s a good time to talk to the teacher before the class starts. You can let them know you are trying yoga for the first time, that you may need to take it easy or have a part of your body where there is a limitation of movement. They are the best people to give you a bit of an idea about what to expect in the class.

Do I need to do all the poses?

Nope! Yoga is about being in the body and feeling out what is right for you. Anything that causes sharp pinching pain or any sensation which takes your breath away is a sign from your body saying that position isn’t right for you at that time. If this happens you can come out of the pose slightly or fully. There is a pose called child’s pose which is the go to position any time in the practice. It’s the pose to regain your breath, to rest or simply stay there until another pose that you might like comes along.

Giving it another go

Since there is such a variety in yoga styles, teacher personalities and range of environments it is worth giving yoga more than one class to really determine whether or not it’s right for you. If you find it ultimately isn’t what you want at the moment that’s totally ok too! You’ll know what it is and that it’s there if you ever want to come back to it.

Ask for Recommendations

One of the best ways to find a class is to ask others who have tried and tested classes already.  In the comments below, feel free to share your experiences and any places or teachers you love. You never know another Shiny person may be in your ‘hood and looking for a class!

 

Life – but not as you knew it: Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to be introduced to Greig Trout, a two-time cancer fighter who is currently travelling around the world, getting his mojo back.  Greig is followed on Twitter by thousands who virtually keep up with his adventures. While we admire (and are hugely jealous!) of Greig’s amazing travels, we also really appreciate the honesty he’s shown in talking about the mental health impact of his cancer diagnoses. In our latest blog, Greig talks about the insomnia, depression and post-traumatic stress he’s had to cope with since he finished his last treatment.  None of these things get talked about enough and many people diagnosed with cancer feel like there’s something wrong with them when they don’t ‘bounce back’ to their pre-diagnosis selves.  Take a read below – we’d love to know what you think. You can tweet us on @shinecancersupp or email us at info@shinecancersupport.co.uk


Greig Trout photo

Greig on his travels

 

Anyone who has survived cancer will tell you that there is never a moment where the doctor turns to you and declares “you are cured”. To my knowledge that didn’t happen when I survived cancer as a child and it certainly didn’t happen this time round as an adult. Every six months you are simply told “all is looking good, I’ll see you in another 6 months”.

I was first diagnosed with cancer as a seven-year old. I had a stage IV Wilms tumour. It was pretty far gone and I had tumours in my lungs, my arteries and my kidney. As well as having my kidney removed, I had extensive chemo and radiotherapy. I was very lucky to survive when many others on my ward didn’t.

My worst fear came true at the age of 30 when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I couldn’t believe it. My mum had always told me that I’d had my tough time in life and that it would never come back. Perhaps rather naively I believed her.

Getting cancer as an adult was a completely different experience to that as a child. The only things I remember about being ill as a child are being sick all the time, losing my hair and the smell of the chemo. I don’t remember ever worrying immediately afterwards whether it would come back or not. People would say how brave I was but in truth I just had no idea what was going on.

As an adult I completely crumbled both before and especially afterwards. When I was ill I always believed I would get better but when I was better I didn’t believe that I was. I liken it to climbing Everest only to get the top and then suddenly having all your ropes and safety equipment taken away. I was gripped by fear. Fear of the cancer coming back, fear it hadn’t actually gone, and fear that I had very limited time.

This fear led to a whole assortment of issues. I suffered from insomnia, spending most nights staring at the ceiling first just worrying about cancer and then about pretty much everything else. I then developed severe eczema on my face and body and, when I did sleep, I suffered from night sweats. I was highly emotional and lost all my confidence. I felt like a glass filled to the top and just one drop would send me over the edge.

The worst thing about all of this was that I hated myself for feeling this way. Wasn’t I supposed to be filled with pure elation and with a new love of life, like all the cancer survivors I’d read about? I was certainly grateful but happiness seemed to elude me. I’d gone from someone who was confident and enthusiastic about life to someone who didn’t even want to leave the house. When I saw friends they would often comment on my skin or how tired I looked. It was tiredness that led me to finding out I had cancer, so each time someone said this all I heard was “Greig, you still have cancer”.

I honestly thought I was losing my mind. Cancer was all I thought about. I tried different forms of therapy and eventually resorted to anti-depressants. The relationship I was in then ended; looking back perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  I wasn’t the man she fell in love with anymore.

It wasn’t until I chanced upon an article in a women’s magazine that it occurred to me that maybe everything I was feeling was actually normal. The article was about the singer Kylie Minogue. Kylie had survived breast cancer and in the article she said that there wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t think about cancer. Perhaps selfishly, this made me feel better. It seemed I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. I had read so many books where people proudly claimed that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them. This was the first thing I’d read which I related to.

It took my doctors a long time to use the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for my mental and physical condition. I had always associated PTSD with the military and war so I’d never associated it with cancer or illness. This seems ridiculous now considering it is all in the title; ‘post-trauma’. It doesn’t matter what kind of trauma it is.

My issues with PTSD have been worse than both my cancers put together. When I was ill I always had hope that I would be okay but that hope quickly vanished when I was better and it was the worst feeling in the world. Without hope I was lost.

I’m currently on an around the world trip and it’s my on-going experience with anxiety and PTSD that not only prompted me to take it, but also to share my story. I wondered how many people out there hadn’t read that article about Kylie and I wondered how many people felt like I did.

The good news is that a feeling of fear and anger after cancer is completely normal, and the anxiety can be controlled. I have received hundreds of emails from people around the world who have gone through exactly the same thing.  I found that simply writing a list of things to look forward to helped me to overcome my fear of the future. Within a couple of months of writing my list I started to sleep again and my skin cleared up. I started to feel excited about the future instead of fearing it.

Cancer is still my first thought of the day but I can now turn my thoughts around to much happier and optimistic ones. I have found that doing things you enjoy is the best medicine of all. You don’t have to travel the world but simply do some thing that makes you happy. Watching the sun go down or having a cup of coffee while watching the world go by are still my most favourite things in the world. I just try to do them more often now.

The main thing people should know who are also going through this is that you are not alone and that there is hope.

You can follow Grieg on Twitter at @101Greig. You can also follow his adventures of 101 Things to do when you Survive on Facebook here

If you need further help and advice to cope with anxiety, depression or PTSD, you may find the following links useful:

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Mayo Clinic blog on PTSD and cancer

Depression and Cancer on Cancer Research UK’s website