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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Lost and found: Friendship after cancer

Life isn’t easy if you’re a young adult with cancer.  So many things – work, family, energy levels and that sense of invincibility – change all at once. One thing that most of us would like to think is that our friends (especially the close ones) will stand by and step up when they’re needed.

But what if you’ve got cancer and a friend ghosts you? In our latest blog, one of our Shine members, Catherine, shares a letter she wrote to a someone who was a close friend before cancer, but who disappeared once her diagnosis was confirmed. Take a read, share, and do let us know what you think.


Dear person who was my friend before cancer,

We were so close. Together we drank tea and wine, exercised, and chewed the cud over life, the universe and everything. We knew each other’s secrets. We cried together. So naturally you were one of the first people I told about my diagnosis seven months ago.

Since then, you’ve pretty much disappeared. Daily messaging has morphed silently into monthly texts, and the message is always prefaced with “I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch, I’ve been so busy….”. You might ask how I am, you might not. Occasionally you’ve suggested you might have time next month – but you never follow up and actually book something in. On the few occasions I’ve asked directly for help, you’ve been too busy.

friendships after cancer

Catherine with her two children

You once said to me “I know I haven’t been around much, but this is a long road, and when your help has tailed off, I’ll be there”. For months I believed this. I imagined you were waiting until you had time to do something ‘big’, something equal to the size of the heap of shite I am going through at the moment. I know you’re a perfectionist and I thought maybe you were just holding on until you found the time to deliver the perfect care package. But here I am, almost at the end of chemo, and I’m still waiting.

Other people have stepped up incredibly. People I hardly know have brought us food, taken the kids out, sent messages, diarised my chemo dates so they always remember to send a note. These are people with jobs and/or one, two or three kids, they are chief executives, teachers, full-time mums, opera singers…. busy people…. but somehow they have found time. My overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude and humility. But still, there’s you.

Actually, I don’t need you to have done any specific thing. I’ve had so much support it’s been amazing ,and most gaps have been filled. During the low moments of chemo, when I’ve thought about telling you how I feel, I imagine you asking what you should have done, and the things that pop into my mind sound so petty – why didn’t you just pop round for a cup of tea? Ask me if I needed anything when you went shopping? Waited for me on the school run so we could walk together? But it isn’t the absence of any of these things in particular. It’s the absence of all of them. It’s that I thought that you cared, that you would be there, that you had my back, and it makes me so sad that you don’t.

I’ve tried so hard to understand why; many people have suggested that perhaps my diagnosis is just too scary for you to deal with. But I know you and you don’t shy away from tough situations; if anything you seek them out. Now I’ve given up trying to work it out. It doesn’t matter. I won’t be able to trust you again, and I don’t blame cancer for that. This dumb disease may have created the situation but you chose how to respond to it. You chose to let your addiction to being busy dictate your priorities and to leave me at the bottom of the list when I needed you most. These days I struggle to even read your Facebook updates – it’s an important part of your life and you use it a lot – because it feels like out of the half hour you choose to spend on there each day, you could have taken 30 seconds out to drop me a text.

Other people, those who have rallied round, will be new friends and I rejoice in their love and support. But I’m still sad and angry that you chose to leave me. I hope if I’ve learned one thing from having cancer, it will be how not to make the same mistake.

Catherine

Catherine says she “rants a lot on Facebook to my poor captive audience but this is my first blog!” (we thank her for sharing it!).  Catherine is a secondary school teacher who was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. She has two children. 

If you’d like to chat to other young adults with cancer, why not join a Shine Network meet up, or our private Facebook group? For more info on Shine, visit our website

getting hit by a bus

10 things you shouldn’t say to someone with cancer

Okay, we get it. Sometimes, talking to your friend or relative with cancer feels awkward. What do you say? What if you say the wrong thing? How can you help?

Recently, a discussion in our private Facebook group took off – “What’s the silliest thing someone has ever said to you about cancer?” asked David, one of our members. More than 110 comments later, we felt like we had to share some of them with the world! Take a read and let us know what you think. If you’ve got cancer, we hope you’ve managed to avoid these comments (all of these are real, by the way – we haven’t made them up!).  If you’re supporting someone with cancer, we know you want to help. Stuck for words? Sometimes admitting, “I don’t know what to say” can be the best way forward.

1. “You don’t look like you have cancer”.

In the movies or on TV, the person with chemo usually spends their days losing their hair and looking increasingly ill. But these days, a lot of cancer drugs don’t make you lose

1454189966867

All of these people have, or have had cancer.

your hair, and many people don’t have chemotherapy anyway. Some people end up on “watch and wait” without treatment right away, while surgery and radiotherapy are frequently given for more localised cancers (or even advanced cancer if they can halt the spread). The key message here? A lot of people don’t “look” like they have cancer but just because you can’t see the side effects of the cancer or treatment doesn’t mean they aren’t there. A simple “How are you feeling?” can be a much better, and more sensitive way to start a conversation.

2. “So, how long have you got?” or “I’ll help you with your bucket list.”

We all know that cancer can cause death. But if, when, and how that might happen isn’t usually something that we want to talk about. When you’re asking your friend or relative about their illness, ask yourself whether your questions are more for your own information (read: nosiness) or to help them.Bucket List

Most people with cancer aren’t given a “timeline”, and even if they are, they might not want to share it. If your friend is openly creating a bucket list, great, but generally speaking it’s good to keep the death talk to a minimum. Journalist Helen Fawkes created a “List for Living” after she was diagnosed; this can be a much more positive way to think about treating someone with cancer to a nice experience than a “bucket list”.

3. “You don’t need chemo…..I know someone who cured their cancer with [insert questionable cure here]” or “Chemo doesn’t work – it’s just a plot by Big Pharma to make money” or “Have you tried turmeric?”

Wheat grass

This will not cure your cancer.

So, your friend is prepping to start chemo and this seems like a good time to tell them about an article you read about someone who shunned chemo and cured their Very Deadly Cancer with kale and wheatgrass, right? Wrong.

Chemo can be tough but it saves lives, and whether you agree with your friend’s treatment decisions doesn’t matter. Eating more fruits and vegetables, and getting more exercise is certainly good for us and there is some evidence that it can help reduce rates of relapse in certain cancer types. But if the person you’re supporting is undergoing chemotherapy, consider carefully whether it’s definitely the right time to bring up that raw food diet that your aunt’s sister’s best friend used to cure her dog’s leukaemia. It’s probably not.  Instead, why not make them a nice meal and take it over to their house? (Only include kale if you know they like it!).

4. “That’s a good kind of cancer” or “At least you’ve lost weight. There’s a silver lining in everything, right?”

When you’re diagnosed with a life-threatening disease it’s pretty hard to find any silver linings. Self-esteem can take a massive hit, so try to avoid making comments about someone’s appearance or weight or downplaying the seriousness of what they’re facing. Anyone diagnosed with cancer is likely to feel pretty shocked by the diagnosis. Sure, some cancer types are more curable than others, but as most oncologists will tell you, every case is different. Telling someone they’ve got a “good cancer” risks minimising their feelings. A better approach might be to say something like “I’m so sorry about your diagnosis. Do you want to talk?”

5. “Cancer is caused by past trauma and stress”

There is little good quality evidence that stress and cancer are linked and if your friend has cancer, they’re probably stressed because, you know, they’ve got cancer. Ask yourself what you can do to relieve their stress. Can you take them out for a film or a drink? Cook them dinner? Walk their dog? It doesn’t need to be a big thing – even small gestures can mean a lot. Take a look at our blog about how you can help.

6. “I’ve heard that’s a really bad way to die” or “I know someone who died of that.”

As with point 2 above, avoiding death talk is generally the way to go. Talking about how bad/painful/awful death might be is a big no no. And telling your friend or relative with cancer that you know someone who died of the exact same thing is also to be avoided. Know someone who has lived 20 years after a diagnosis? Feel free to mention them! Those are the stories we like.

7. “Managing someone with cancer will look good on my CV” or “What about me?”

If someone you know has cancer, it’s time to think about all the great ways that you can support them. A cancer diagnosis is about the person who has cancer and those immediately surrounding them (partners, parents, children). This can feel odd if you’re used to getting support from your friend or relative but think of it as a good opportunity to repay all the love and support that you’ve received in the past. Unsure who to turn to for support? Take a look at this handy “ring theory” guide and remember: support in, dump out!

Ring Theory

8. “If you need anything, just let me know.”

We know it might sound odd, but often, we don’t know what we need, and even if we do, it can feel scary to ask. Rather than making your offer general, try to make it a bit more specific. Ask if you can make dinner on a Tuesday, drive your friend to their next appointment, or do their grocery shopping next week. By making it specific, you’re taking away the burden of coming up with something – and that is helpful.

9.“Everyone dies” or “Any one of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow”.

Bus

“I might get hit by a bus tomorrow”.

You’re right – everyone does die. But the difference with cancer, especially cancer at a young age, is that death goes from being a vague hypothetical, to something that is giving you a cold hard slap in the face. That bus everyone’s talking about? Your friend has already been hit by it. They’re just waiting to see whether they’ll survive, and they’re likely really scared. It’s great to ask someone if they want to talk but sometimes distraction can be the greatest gift. Seen a funny cat video online? Now may be the time to send it over (assuming you’ve already checked on how they’re feeling).

10. “So, you’re all better now, right?”

One of the things that few people talk about is the long-term effects of cancer. The media shows us people who have survived cancer and go on to run a marathon or write a best seller. What you don’t get to see is that those same people are often also left scarred, depressed and tired after months or years of intensive treatment. For many people with cancer, the end of treatment is a tough time. They’re no longer seeing their doctors and nurses as regularly and, on the surface, life appears to be returning to normal. They may be in remission or be looking forward to a long treatment break but they’re unlikely to be “all better now” or for a long time to come.

We know it can be tough to keep up the same level of support once treatment has finished but keep in mind that your friend or relative may be feeling especially lonely. Make sure to keep checking in and, if you can, make sure they still get the odd treat. Be ready to chat if they want to talk about how they’re feeling and remember that you don’t have to solve all their problems. Just being a good listener can be all that’s needed.


If you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s, why not join us online? We’ve got a private Facebook group here, or you can follow us on Twitter or Instagram

young adult cancer conference

Getting connected

In 2016, Shine decided to go large and hold our first annual conference. With close to 100 people in attendance, it was a great day and for 2017 we decided to go bigger and better! Shine Connect was held on 20th May in London and was designed as a way for young adults from across the country to come together and connect for a day. With expert speakers and much more, it’s now one of our favourite events, and this year 120 people joined us. Take a read of Jen’s blog about the day – and get set to join us next year!


Connect 1I’m not sure there are many – in fact any – other cancer conferences that combine singing and cute dogs with dating advice and frank discussions about sex and relationships. And that’s what makes Shine Connect unique!

Shine supports a diverse group of young adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s with the unfortunate commonality of having had a diagnosis of cancer. Our needs differ vastly from the older cancer demographic and Shine Connect, Shine’s annual conference, works to address those needs. It is a conference both for young adults with cancer and for healthcare professionals looking to better support young adults with cancer.

Following an introduction from Shine Directors, Ceinwen and Emma, the day kicked off with a panel discussion – think Oprah, but without the tears. Three young adults living with a cancer diagnosis, Robin, Chris and Jess, spoke eloquently about a range of subjects and took questions from the audience. Topics included dealing with uncertainty and anxiety; managing your own feelings and needs alongside the needs of your partner, parents and wider family and friends; dating after cancer; and returning to your career or readjusting career plans. Far from being depressing, their discussion was a lively, funny, raw and honest. Pretty much every person I spoke to could identify with something that was discussed on the panel and many people felt it was one of the best sessions of the day. (NB: You can view the Facebook Live video of the panel here). 

Having cancer as a young adult is a lonely business, and more than once someone at the conference mentioned the frequency with which we hear ‘oh, you’re very young for cancer!’ at clinic appointments. Having the opportunity to listen to and talk with others who are also ‘too young for cancer’ is like being hugged many understanding, warm arms. For me, this first session really set the tone for the rest of the day.

Connect 4

Shine participants, Plus Ones and healthcare professionals came together

After the panel discussion, the conference attendees split into different sessions: building resilience, fertility after cancer, managing fatigue, and supporting children through an adult’s cancer. There was also a separate session for attendees who were the family/friends of a young adult with cancer, and a session about the needs of young adults with cancer for health care professionals. Over lunch (a super scrummy, healthy spread, followed by fruit or something a little more chocolaty if you preferred!) there was plenty of time to mingle and chat with others, and to swap tips gained from the various sessions. There was also a chance to talk to some of the other organisations that had stalls in the conference “market place”. These included Ellie’s Friends, a charity providing treats like days out and theatre tickets to young adults with cancer; the Lymphoma Association; Insurance With, a specialist travel insurance company for those with pre-existing medical conditions; and Maggie’s Centres. Look Good, Feel Better were there giving makeovers, while a couple of fabulous massage therapists set up downstairs and managed to give out 50 (!) free massages over the course of the day. Last, but definitely not least, Shine had invited Pets as Therapy to the conference, giving everyone who attended the chance to meet some very cute therapy dogs!

 

Connect 2

One of the therapy dogs gets some love from a Connect participant!

The afternoon session saw some of the morning sessions repeated but there were also new sessions on sex, singing, and creativity in health. More than one person told me how difficult it had been to choose! Along with the majority of afternoon attendees, I went to the interactive sex session (that’s interactive as in talking about sex, in case you were wondering!) Led by the amazingly frank and funny Karen Hobbs and Dr Isabel White, a leading specialist in sexual problems related to cancer treatment, a range of issues were discussed, from physical limitations due to treatment, to chemically induced menopause. It was refreshing to focus on an area that is generally neglected by the medical profession.

Sex after cancer

Dr. Isabel White and Karen Hobbs hosted a great (and funny!) sex after cancer session

The day was rounded off with a fascinating keynote speech from Professor Mark Petticrew, a global expert in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has carried out extensive research into psychological factors and whether they influence cancer and heart disease. During my own experience of cancer and recovery, the questions of how a ‘stressful’ life might have contributed to my diagnosis, and whether emotional stress might hinder recovery, were often brought up. Professor Petticrew’s research showed, however, that there is very little convincing evidence that stress causes cancer and that many of the studies on stress and cancer are seriously flawed. It was an interesting note to end on given that so many of us worry that we have done something to cause our cancer. There’s no need to get stressed out about this too!

Mark P

Prof Mark Petticrew from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

If you go to Shine’s website you’re able to listen to some fabulous podcasts of ‘Not Your Grandma’s Cancer Show’. Shine Connect could have been called ‘Not Your Grandma’s Cancer Conference’. It’s certainly unique in the cancer world. If you weren’t able to attend this year I strongly recommend you keep an eye out for Shine Connect 2018; who knows what fun will be added next year!

 

It definitely takes a village to make these events happen and we’d like to send massive thanks to TTA, the amazing events management company who helped us pull Shine Connect off for the second year in a row! Huge thanks also to Don’t Forget the Kids, Emily Hodge of Coaching Emily, Toby Peach and Tenovus Cancer Care for delivering some fabulous sessions at the conference! We’d also like to send a huge shout out to Look Good, Feel Better for running some great make-over sessions, and Keith and Rozalia from the Complementary Therapy Department at the Royal Free Hospital for giving free massages to our participants all day!

Supporting the supporters of young adults with cancer – our first Shine Plus Ones workshop

Back in March, Shine held its first Shine Plus Ones workshop (we meant to publish this blog sooner – but we’ve been busy!). It was a great day and we were really happy to put some faces to the names we’ve come to know via email and social media over the last Plus Ones 5couple of years!  In our latest blog, Salma, one of the participants, explains how the day went down. We’re really keen to expand our Plus Ones group so if you’d like to get involved, drop us an email at plusones@shinecancersupport.org, or join our Shine Plus Ones Facebook group. The Plus Ones have also been meeting up for drinks in London and the more the merrier so please do get in touch!

From it’s 18th Century origins, the beautiful Somerset House by Waterloo Bridge has been a centre for debate and discussion.  How fitting then that a group of strangers should meet here to talk of something that is rarely given the platform it deserves.
Back in March, Shine held its first Shine Plus Ones workshop.  We are the other half of Shine – or in better terms the other halves.
Plus Ones 3
The wonderful Shine Cancer Support has helped and continues to support thousands of young people with cancer through it’s meetings, retreats, social events, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds – and much much more.  But behind each of these people is someone who keeps it all together, day in day out, the spouse, the partner, the sibling, the parents……We are the Plus Ones and we sometimes need help too.
Public transport did it’s best to delay and reroute us but we are not a bunch to give up lightly and eventually all 22 participants managed to make it to Central London for the workshop.
Tirelessly organised and led by Ceinwen, Emma and psychologist Jason, the day began gently.  We’d never met each other before and none of us, we discovered, are that good at talking about this stuff.

We all provide care and support for our loved ones but how do you stand next to someone with cancer and say “Hold on – what about me?”.   You just can’t do it – unless that is, you are in a room full of people who feel exactly the same way.  And this is the genius of the Shine Plus Ones group: we all get it.  There is no judgment here, you’re allowed to say that you are angry with the person you are caring for, you are allowed to say you feel depressed or that you feel you’re being treated unfairly.  These little things are actually huge.

Plus Ones 2

Some of the ways our Plus Ones deal with stress

The day was cleverly arranged to get us thinking and talking.  It was invaluable to be able to give and receive advice to and from each other.  Jason is the one though who bound the day together; his personal and professional experience really cleared the haze for most of us.  As a psychologist, he really helped us to separate what are thoughts and what are realities, and he gave us tools to deal with our stresses and anxieties and taught us to be kind to ourselves. He made it ok to have a bad day.
Plus ONes

The workshop gang went for drinks afterwards. They’re now meeting up regularly.

At the end of it, we had a network, an email list and a few phone numbers.  Some of us have met up already since that day – a noisy table in a crowded bar where we blended in with all the other noisy tables of people laughing and drinking.  We don’t need to talk about cancer, we don’t need to cry or shout or talk deeply about anything – but the point is that we can if we want to, and we all know it.  There is another meet up planned and there will be many more.  And hopefully our group of friends will grow over time – not because it’s a nice club to be a part of, but because out of all this chaos and heartache it’s a huge comfort to know you’re not alone.

To find out more about Shine Plus Ones, please email us on plusones@shinecancersupport.org, or request to join our private Facebook group. This workshop was made possible through the support of our fabulous friends at Travel Insurance Facilities

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

 

 

Life – but not as you knew it: No way back!

One of the things that no one tells you when you’re first diagnosed with cancer is that you’ll never be the same (and if they told you, you probably wouldn’t believe them!).  Whatever the outcome of diagnosis and treatment, many people feel changed.  This can be a disorienting feeling – after all, we just want to get back to normal, don’t we?

In our latest blog, Jen shares her thoughts on some of the good  and bad  changes that she’s experienced since her diagnosis a year ago.  Here at Shine we don’t always push “positive thinking” because – let’s be frank – there’s A LOT about cancer that just isn’t positive.  However, as Jen points out, “there’s nothing like a life threatening illness to highlight what’s truly important in life”.  It’s a shame we don’t often get this insight without the life threatening illness, but it’s still worth remembering!


Jen Hart

If I had the choice of never having had cancer and returning to the life I was living before, I most definitely would. The rollercoaster of a cancer diagnosis and treatment is a long, bumpy, and terrifying ride. It’s also one that does not end where it started. To quote the title of this blog series: it’s your life, but not as you knew it!

As I slowly accept a new version of me within my strange new world I am starting to appreciate the positive changes that have come about due to my ride on the cancer rollercoaster. I may have new limits but I also have new priorities, new perspectives, and new hopes and dreams.

Following my diagnosis last October, I took a stoic approach, gritted my teeth and readied myself for six months (Ha ha! This was my first naive mistake!) of gruelling treatment. I was determined that I would get through whatever I needed to, be cured, and then return to my normal life. I would plod on with living as if cancer had never happened (this was naïve mistake number 2!).

Almost all of my family and friends shared my naïve view, and why wouldn’t they? Unless you’ve had experience to the contrary it is a perfectly sensible view to hold.   Many times throughout my treatment I was reassured by well-meaning friends and family that it would soon be over and I would get back to normal. The concept seems laughable to me now, but for at least the first few months of treatment the thought of returning to a “normal” life kept me going. I was fiercely determined not to be “changed” by cancer. I did not need a brush with my own mortality to be taught to appreciate life thank you very much!

It’s very difficult to accept change when it is forced upon you so brutally. Initially it was the superficial, physical changes that were my focus and I was determined to return to exactly how I looked “before”, as soon as possible. At times it felt as if my entire identity was encapsulated in the way I looked. I think the focus on these superficial things stems from the fact there is absolutely nothing you can do about the non-superficial things that have been changed. The scars from surgery, the damaged nerves and muscles from chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the terrible memory and disrupted thinking process – it has been hard to accept these things as part of my new life.

As time has passed, however, I’ve had to slowly learn the art of acceptance rather than try to return to ‘normal’. I will never look like I did before and I will never feel like I did before but, you know what? That’s OK. I may be the same person but my experiences have shifted my life onto a completely new trajectory.

There are, of course, the physical changes that I have to learn to live with. I must accept that I may never regain the same level of fitness and health I enjoyed before and that there may be permanent damage done by treatment. I am learning to let go of the anger and bitterness that I sometimes feel about that. It’s easy to say “well at least I’m alive” but at times it’s difficult to feel that. And then there is the threat of a recurrence that all cancer “survivors” must learn to live with. I need to learn to supress the reflex to break out in a cold sweat every time I have a nagging pain or feel a lump or bump. I am assured it gets easier with time and I’m sure it will.

Looking past these more negative aspects of my changed new reality there is, however, a much stronger and overriding positive change. There’s nothing like a life threatening illness to highlight what’s truly important in life. I have been shown the true value of relationships and witnessed the best of humanity in the love and support I’ve had showered upon me. Small acts of kindness have meant so much. I hope that in my new life I can always remember how these small gestures have impacted upon me and pay the kindness forward. I know more about myself now than I did a year ago and I have an appreciation for aspects of my personality that I perhaps didn’t previously value or recognise. I am aware of how quickly ‘good health’ can be whisked away and I find joy in simply being able to walk or run in the sunshine. I try to focus on what I am doing more and think about the future less. Living in the moment is such a cliché but, for me, it has been directly correlated with peace and happiness. In my new, post-cancer life I have found a deeper appreciation of how I can create my own happiness, and I fully intend to create as much as possible.

Returning to ‘normal’ is no longer my goal. My new normal is pretty damn good. There’s no going back. And that’s OK.

Jennifer has just finished her treatment for breast cancer. She lives in Dorset with her husband and two daughters – and, with two others, runs Shine New Forest!