Recently I discovered a book, Growing Older Feeling Better In Body Mind & Spirit, that seems very relevant to my work as an oncology massage therapist. Even though it was written in 1993, so much of the information is still making the headlines today for living a healthier life, in sickness and health. Its target audience was for seniors wanting to grow old healthier, but I believe it can benefit people in treatment for cancer or survivors. I realized that my upcoming talk for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for Memorial Cancer Institute focused on these same practices; breathing & meditation with music, movement therapy and self massage.
I am an ardent fan of Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and he “informs us that 75-80% of all our present-day illnesses are caused by stress. And of the 20-25% remaining disease states, he believes they can definitely become worse through stress.” Add those statistics that caregivers have an increased chance of a major illness within the first year of taking care of a loved one, lets us realize that we all need to take better care of ourselves. (Scheller, 1993, p. 3)
Massage Therapists and other health care professionals know what to do, but fail miserably at living the life style they preach. We get busy with work and family, forget to eat right, don’t exercise, fail to recognize we are fast approaching stress overload with all the tell tale symptoms, headaches, pain, digestive problems, high blood pressure to name a few. Walking the walk and talking the talk are not as easy as it seems.
The hard part for me is educating without preaching, making the activity gentle enough for a patient to engage in when they feel such extreme fatigue from treatment. Minute sessions can be increased as fatigue fades and a normal energy level returns. Realizing the importance of my hobbies; pottery, dance, kayaking, I am better able to pass on the importance of stress relieving activities while at the same time downsizing my expectations for my clients.
Our response to stress is natural, we all find ourselves in “flight or fight” everyday; work, families, traffic, illness, finances, etc. It is how we deal with stress that makes us ill over the long term. Our bodies go through a normal physiological response to stress that affects our heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, muscle tension, digestion, even our senses. It was what kept us safe during times when we needed to flee from the tiger. But out body needs the “rest” cycle after the threat is gone. When we are constantly in over –drive from running from danger and our bodies suffer. When we don’t tend to our bodies, it is similar to not tending to your car; parts break down, wear and tear happens faster without maintenance and the life of the car is decreased considerably.
It’s hard enough in a person’s daily life to take care of themselves, add dealing with a serious illness or being a caretaker makes it almost impossible. The good news is that simple techniques can make a difference in your quality of life. Techniques that include; simple relaxation breathing exercises, meditation that includes visualization, movement therapy, self massage or acupressure, and proper nutrition can be learned and many times relearned. These techniques can benefit both the caretaker and person they are tending to.
The most important health practice would be simple deep breathing. You can take your breath with you anywhere, in the doctor’s office, in traffic, etc. Five to ten minutes throughout the day is adding 7x more oxygen than our normal, shallow breathing each time you deep breathe. Oxygen nourishes cells, and brings us energy. There are many CD’s on the market that teach us deeper breathing as well as meditation with visualization. By breathing well and relaxing in mini breaks it restores one’s body and calms the mind. Create a new mantra to include with your deep breathing, “this too shall pass, I will survive.” As you breathe well, picture yourself surrounded by loved ones at your favorite spot.
Gentle movement helps to keep our bodies in better working condition. During a recent line dance conference, the instructor constantly mentions that “motion is lotion” and “rest is rust.” So true, many times patients have told me the inactivity of being sick was worse than the treatment. That is why gentle movement is so key for patients. New research is showing the benefits of exercise during treatment. Exercise that keeps muscles stronger instead of atrophying, exercises that help with bone density. Even if a patient doesn’t have the energy for aerobic exercise, they can still search for gentle movement classes in their cancer centers or communities. Yoga, tai-chi, qigong, line dancing, water therapy can all be designed to help someone in treatment or recently finished with treatment. Even a few minutes a day at home can be beneficial. The gentle movement can deliver oxygenated blood to tissues, elongate stiff muscles, and create a sense of “remembered wellness.” Picture yourself in the ocean as you do a healing wave tai-chi move or taking a stroll at your favorite hiking spot as you walk around your living room.
For years I have seen the side effects of treatment that affect the digestive system. There are patients that sail through treatment without any symptoms, and some have a terrible time. At a time when your body needs the nutrition to help rebuild your body, it is impossible to eat with the nausea and vomiting. Friends and family members entice you with your favorite meals, and you feel guilty for not eating. Search out an oncology nutritionist and learn simple recipes that are nutritious and appetizing. In time you will feel better and visualized the future sitting at the table with loved ones eating your favorite meal.
Research has proven that massage can help with the physical side effects of treatment. Side effects that include; neuropathy, tight and painful muscles and anxiety. Simple massage techniques and acupressure points can be done at home, which makes massage and acupressure affordable and easily accessible. Find an oncology massage therapist that can help you create a massage plan that includes acupressure points. Have them demonstrate the routine with you to make sure you understand the correct pressure, length of time, comfortable position for the routine, and most importantly what not to do. I have taught many patients simple massage techniques and they have routinely shared with me the reduction of treatment symptoms.
Including these simple suggestions may help you get through treatment a bit easier and I hope you continue them as part of a healthier lifestyle. Plan a spa day to celebrate your life, enjoy a massage, get pampered, you deserve it.