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Breast cancer survivor asks what she can do to stay well.

05 Jan
A breast cancer survivor, newly finished with chemotherapy, is feeling the fear and anxiety of the cancer returning as never before, and she asks what she can do now to stay well..
Dear Belleruth,

I came across your tapes last year at this time, when I was looking for some meditation tapes for while I went through cancer treatment. I had breast cancer and I found them to be invaluable as I went through surgery, chemo and radiation. I would listen to the chemo tape while I received the "poison".

But, now I have a new issue and I am sure I am not alone. I finished treatment in July, and I am slowly reassembling my life, but I am constantly under the fear and anxiety of the cancer returning. Other cancer survivors have told me this is very normal.

I have reviewed your list of tapes and CDs and nothing really seems to address this issue. Would you be willing to create something specific for cancer survivors? It seems once we are done with treatment we are somewhat forgotten. I think while you are going through treatment, you are so busy getting from day to day with the physical issues that you never really address the psychological issues. I feel like I have posttraumatic stress syndrome.

In the meantime, which of your tapes would you recommend? I am an RN myself, and I would be more than happy to discuss this with you, if it would help you to help us survivors. Thank you for your consideration.

Faith Ann

Dear Faith Ann,
Yes, this is a very common experience for cancer survivors who are done with their treatment. Just as you say, there has been so much focus on getting through the chemotherapy hurdles, and dealing with the side effects, that even if it wasn’t pleasant, you nonetheless had a powerful sense that you were doing what you can. Then, all of a sudden, the chemo is over - something you’ve been looking forward to, or so you thought - and the anxiety surfaces with a vengeance - every cell screaming "What do we do now??".

It’s true that a percentage of people who were diagnosed with and treated for a life-threatening illness can wind up developing PTSD. A lot of heart attack and surgery patients risk developing it too. But don’t assume you have PTSD, which would mean you were experiencing symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, irritability, sudden startling, numbness, and more. You are probably just very anxious in the vacuum left by the termination of treatment.

Fortunately we do have imagery for this period of time - it’s the General Wellness imagery, which has very appropriate images of your body doing its normal, everyday, protective scanning for errant, mutant cells and zapping them and removing them. As a nurse, you know that everyone’s immune system - ex-cancer patient or not - is always dispatching renegade cells and this imagery is just a multi-sensory reminder of this process. That’s why we included it in our Cancer Pack - precisely because it addresses this issue, but it’s not about cancer.

So you get to keep deploying imagery, which you’ve come to rely on and appreciate for your relaxation and health; but it’s not in the context of having cancer, which you are happily and hopefully done with. You’re just doing good prevention and health maintenance, like everyone else. That’s the way we want it to stay.

So the very best of health to you, Faith Ann, and a wonderful new year. And just so you know, it takes a while, but there does come a day when you stop wondering if the cancer will be back. I remember one I Can Cope support group I visited, where the group members started the meeting by going around the room, saying who they were and why they were there. One woman said she was there to support her husband, who had prostate cancer. The next person started to speak when she suddenly thought of something else, and interrupted. She said, "Oh! And I just remembered - I had breast cancer twenty years ago! I forgot!"

People loved hearing that - not just that it had been twenty years, but that she’d forgotten she had it! I wish the same for you.

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award