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!

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How running and cycling taught me to cope with chemotherapy

Having chemo? Fancy a run?

For many of us, the answer is a firm “no!”, but in our latest blog, Alison fills us in on how her approach to running and cycling has helped her to cope with her treatment for breast cancer, and we think there’s a lot of wisdom in her approach to breaking things down into manageable chunks. Take a read, let us know what you think – and please do share!


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Blog contributor, Alison Carter

Keeping fit and being a healthy weight have been important to me most of my adult life. As a child and in my teens I was hopeless at all sports (always one of the last to be picked for any team), but I spent hours doing ballet and tap, which kept me fit, flexible and gave me an appreciation of what my body could do. I wasn’t an especially good dancer, but I loved it.

My twenties saw me working hard and travelling a lot for my job, with not much time for exercise. Then as I turned 30, I discovered running and a female-only gym. Both these things made being fit accessible to me, and I had a light bulb moment when I realised I didn’t have to be good at something to enjoy it. I am not fast (my best half marathon was 2 hours 6 minutes), but what I don’t have in speed I make up for in determination. And probably most importantly, I discovered the massive endorphin rush, the so called “runner’s high”, that exercise gave me. What a great stress buster!

A few years later, as my right knee started to fail me, a friend suggested we cycle from London to Paris for charity to mark turning 40. Really???140727_North_Downs_Sportive_0114

Before I knew it, I’d bought a bike and was clocking up miles and enjoying the same benefits that running had given me. The charity ride was tough, but awesome and I’m now an avid cyclist. Through all of this, I developed a real appreciation of how amazing my body is. I may never have a flat stomach, but I love what my body can do for me.

The cancer bomb

So, it was a massive curveball when this January I was diagnosed with breast cancer. How could this be? How could this amazing body have cancer in it? Ok, I’ve had stress in my life and enjoyed plenty of wine, but cancer? Me?

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Having breast cancer treatment – with the cold cap!

I know some people feel their body has let them down when they get cancer, but I think it’s just really bad luck. I had no choice about getting cancer, but I can choose how I deal with it. My feeling is that how I treat my body is my best defence against the cancer coming back (my cancer is stage 2, grade 3). And I’m sure that being fit going in to breast cancer treatment has made a difference.

What cycling has taught me 

I’m just about to have my last round of chemotherapy (number six of FEC-T), to be followed by radiotherapy and Tamoxifen. Treatment is tough, but I have been able to bring to it what I have learned from running and cycling, and this has really helped me.

Treatment plans are subject to change, but it’ll be about eight months in total, so, I broke it in to chunks, as I would any long run or bike ride, with five clear stages:

  1. Surgery
  2. Chemo
  3. Radiotherapy
  4. Tamoxifen
  5. Recovery, the new me, after eight months.

When I cycle a long bike ride, such as Ride London, I train for it for months to prepare. Strangely, this is now how I view the last 15-odd years of my adult life: building a physical and emotional resilience that I never knew I’d need until the cancer bomb was dropped.

When I’m on a ride, I’ve learned that breaking it down to goals gets me through. I didn’t invent this, it’s standard practice; your brain usually gives up before your body does in such events, so finding the psychological plan is key. My first goal may be getting to the feed station at mile 19 where I know there’ll be flapjacks and so on. Experience has also shown me that I get a dip midway on all long rides and runs. I start to tire or pain or injuries start to niggle, and the end is not in sight yet.  In my head I desperately want to give up.

My treatment has been so very similar to this: one phase at a time, then one chemotherapy at a time, setting goals and rewards, and remembering that there will be a midway dip, but I’ll get through it.

After chemo round three I fell in to a huge dip, and I could happily have given up at that point. My hair was falling out, everything tasted of cardboard, my veins hurt and I had constant acid reflux and nausea. I was exhausted. Mentally and emotionally I was spent. But I took it one day at a time, just as I would have done on a tough run or ride.

On my good days, as I emerge from the side effects, I go for walks, do a spin class when I feel strong enough (I have to lie down for two hours afterwards!) and make sure I have goals that will give me a sense of purpose and achievement. As a result, during chemo I have done a Race For Life and cycled the Pink Ribbon Tour in London. I also ensure I have plans to see family and friends on my good days. These things exhaust me, but they fill my soul. I’ve learned to pace myself through cancer treatment just as I do through a run or bike ride.

My last chemo is next week. I know I’ll have a tough week where I lose myself to side effects, but one day at a time and it’ll be done. Then I can focus my energies on rebuilding myself ready for the next phase. That first finish line is almost in sight.

For many years, Alison was a fashion buyer. She now leads the creative photo studio for a large UK retailer. Working to to squeeze as much out of life as possible, she can often be found either on her bike, in a theatre, talking to her cat, at an art gallery, or having crazy fun with her niece and nephew. You can follow her blog here.  

For tips on how to support a friend with cancer, take a look at this blog entry. And for a list of things NOT to say to someone with cancer, read our blog here. 

 

Coping with anxiety after a cancer diagnosis

As we dive deeper into 2016, we’ve noticed a lot of talk on our social media sites about anxiety.  Is it normal to feel anxious after a cancer diagnosis? What about after cancer treatment? To help you kick off the new year and get the best out of the next 12 months, we’re delighted that our longtime friend, supporter and all round Shiny person Emily Hodge (aka Coaching Emily) has written a blog about coping with anxiety after cancer. Take a read below, try out some of the techniques – and know that you’re not alone.


Coach Emily Hodge

Coach Emily Hodge

Having worked in both the NHS and health charities and then experiencing cancer myself, I have seen how prevalent anxiety is among the general population. It can be event more prevalent within the cancer community, given the uncertainty and the threat to life that a diagnosis brings.

In my coaching and therapy work with clients, we discuss and use a range of techniques that look at supporting ourselves with anxiety and moving forward in spite of it. They’re not ‘cures’ for anxiety but rather activities or routes to take depending on someone’s circumstances. Here are a few of the many.

Recognise anxiety

Being aware of how you’re coping and what reactions you have to certain situations are a start to recognising anxiety. Often we get so used to a state of mind that we forget to assess it, but understanding our tolerance for it is important. We might think it’s normal to cry in the toilets at work once a week, or to feel anger and guilt all the time but it doesn’t have to be – this might be anxiety rearing it’s head and you might need support with it.

Take a look here and here for trusted sources regarding signs and symptoms of anxiety.

Talk about anxiety

If you’ve recognised it and realise it’s not something you can cope with right now, please see your GP or another trusted person for guidance. Talking about it with someone you feel comfortable with might be the step that helps you next.

Slow down and breathe

Before we can take any big action, we may need to catch ourselves and slow down. Stopping, breathing and slowing our racing thoughts can be the first thing we choose to do when we recognise something uncomfortable. We might want to run (the so-called fight or flight response) but if we can stop rather than rush around, it can be the beginning of a different relationship with our thoughts and feelings.

One quick technique to try is the “5-5-5” breathing technique:

  • Stand up with both feet stable on the floor
  • Look forward with eyes into the distance or closed and hands by your sides
  • Take a deep breath in for 5 seconds
  • Hold this breath for 5 seconds
  • Exhale for 5 seconds
  • Repeat this 10 times (or as long as you feel comfortable) and then check out how you’re doing

Recognise when we last felt less anxious

When we’re in a calmer state (maybe after the breathing or perhaps completely separately), take a moment to think about the times when your anxiety is less present. What are these situations, what time of day do they occur, what happened just before and just after? These indicate times that you feel different, bringing in an awareness of how your mood changes and can help you to recognise that you don’t feel the same way all the time.

Recognising how you’re feeling is important with anxiety because it can trick us into thinking that we’re always like this, and it never changes. If we’re able to see that it does indeed change over time, then we can start to understand our triggers and think about how we could respond differently in the future.

Work out what you love 

Similar to the above, spend some time thinking about what you love. What is it that makes you lose track of time, the thing that helps you forget yourself, the activities or places that you simply love? How possible is it to go to or get more of these in your life? If it doesn’t feel very possible, what might need to be moved or changed to make it more possible? What does even just thinking of this activity do for you?

Get outside

People can get evangelical about being around nature but there’s a reason for it! Evidence shows that being around and able to see green aids feelings of calm. Find the bush at the end of your street if there’s no park to go to – what is it doing? How does it smell, look, feel? It’s a small, small thing but have a go and see what happens.

Equally, go outside and look up – what do you see, hear, smell, and feel? When did you last look up outside?

Finally – walking (however you enjoy it – on your own, with friends or family, a dog, a podcast, music) is a great way to move us into a different state.

Therapy

More formal support can come in many forms – there are talking therapies such as counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which may be available through your local NHS, other therapies such as mindfulness, or body work like acupuncture, the Emotional Freedom Technique, massage, or Reiki. We’re all different and knowing what suits us is important, but you don’t have to do it alone. If you need help to find the right support, try talking with a friend, asking a therapist for a free 20-minute phone consultation, or making a GP appointment.

Medication

Many people might think of anti-anxiety drugs or anti-depressants as a last resort, but they can be a brilliant way to help with the change in chemistry that is going on in the body, particularly following chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgeries. Medication may not be for everyone, but for others it might be just the route to be able to access other support in the first place.

Finally we might feel pressure to ‘solve’ our anxiety because there are so many apparent routes to doing so. But it can be important that we first understand what it is we are dealing with, and how we’re coping before we’re ready to do anything about it. Give yourself a pat on the back for reading this and look at it again when you’re ready.

Emily is a health psychology specialist who worked in the NHS before her own cancer diagnosis. She now runs private one-to-one, group coaching and therapy to support people during and after challenging times in their lives. She’s worked with Shine for over five years and regularly sees cancer clients. Check out her anxiety vlog and website here www.coachingemily.com

 

 

Fighting talk: Why I’m not ‘battling’ my cancer

Most of us who have been diagnosed with cancer will be familiar with the war terminology that frequently accompanies a diagnosis. Fight, battle, war – they’re all words that get thrown around when you’re going through treatment or living with cancer. But are these words helpful? What do they really mean? In our latest blog, Sarah Carlin explains how she feels about this terminology and why she’s not ‘fighting’ her cancer.  We’d love to know what you think about the words that are used to describe a cancer experience – tweet us on @shinecancersupport or email us on info@shinecancersupport.co.uk. Happy reading!


JoJo Gingerhead, was a member of Shine who blogged prolifically about her experience of living with a secondary triple negative breast cancer diagnosis. I never knew Jo personally, but I admired her from afar, not least for her aim of “trying to find light in a dark and scary situation without using the words fight, battle, journey or survivor”.

Uncle Paul

Sarah and her Uncle Paul

The rhetoric around cancer was a bugbear of mine long before I received a diagnosis. I had a much-loved uncle who passed away from a brain tumour at the age of 28, and I’ve always been pretty sure it wasn’t because he didn’t fight hard enough. Yet it’s seemingly impossible to talk about cancer without using militaristic language.

Many organisations use this kind of language to get people on side. Reading slogans like “we’re coming to get you”, you’d be forgiven for thinking that cancer was some sort wildcard despot rather than a complex range of different diseases.

Cancer is not some sort of playground bully you just need to square up to, yet so many people seem to think it is. I’ve had someone tap their head and tell me not to worry because “it’s all up here”, as though all you need to do is stick on the Rocky theme tune and channel your own determination in order to stop those cells dividing. Something, I’ll wager, they’d never say to someone with COPD, or heart disease, or HIV.

There’s also the problem of confirmation bias. Many people who survive the disease talk about their determination not to die, so the idea that this somehow was a factor in their survival seeps into the public consciousness. But the will to live is a pretty much universal human characteristic. You obviously don’t hear from the people who were equally determined, but who died anyway because that’s how disease works.

Sarah Carlin photo 1

Blogger Sarah

Another issue is that nobody “wins” their battle against cancer, or certainly not in the way the media portrays it anyway.  Few people finish chemo, fist-bump the nurses and declare themselves triumphant. You crawl home and spend the next weeks, months, years sh*tting yourself that it’s going to come back. Often it does. If it doesn’t, then maybe, just maybe, after five years has elapsed you might tentatively feel like the danger has passed. There’s no VE day, no calling the troops home, no bunting. This is a disease in which you can never be wholly sure that the gruelling treatment you’ve just endured was enough. Sure, you may have vanquished the enemy on the frontline, but who knows if there are little metastatic guerrillas regrouping and waiting to re-launch when the time is right? My own initial brush with cancer was as close to a clear cut victory as anyone could get. Successful resection, no lymph node or vascular involvement, stage 1 – peace for our time. The bombs fell a year later, however, when it returned in not one but seven places.

Sometimes, the idea that I can fight my cancer through sheer force of will is seductive – I can completely understand why so many people choose that as a way of coping. The thought that you could die so young of this disease just seems like such an insult, so outrageous that the adrenaline runs through your veins and yes, you want to fight. As in most instances in which your life is in danger, the fight or flight instinct has kicked in.

But I know that I can’t fight my cancer. If I live, it won’t be because of anything I’ve done or felt. It will be because of a brilliant consultant, effective treatment and dumb good luck.

So whenever someone tells me I can fight it, it makes me wince – not just for me, but also on behalf of my uncle and on behalf of the many others who are no longer with us, like JoJo.

Sarah Carlin is 31 and works as freelance in PR and as a copywriter. You can read her other blog for Shine (about the perils of reading about cancer on the Internet) here