The anesthesiologist grabbed my hand as I woke up in the room. As I embraced her touch, my head was locked into metal equipment even when I could move other parts of my body. But I wasn't supposed to. Standing behind me, my neurosurgeon reminded me not to try moving my head. With his hands in my brain, his touch worked to save my life.
Sometimes life makes people return to difficult places and experiences for survival. For me, that includes my second awake brain surgery in September 2011. My first brain surgery in 1998 and recovery was completely new to me. Since then, I have come to understand some essential health and healing components needed when dealing with cancer. Cancer care cannot only address the cancer diagnosis and instead must support the whole person.
With brain surgery twice saving my life, I'm experiencing once again how the separation of conventional with integrative cancer treatments must end. Integrative cancer care combines conventional cancer therapies with whole person cancer care of full body, mind and spirit, including social and environmental health. Over the last several months, I've been creating my integrative cancer care plan post-surgery. Here are some of my self-care strategies and the beginning of my integrative cancer care treatments.
Sleep and Rest: For me it started with the basics of sleep and rest. Most healthy adults need between seven and eight hours of quality sleep nightly. But people dealing with health problems often need more. Post-surgery I couldn't sleep, with huge side effects from the surgery and my drugs. When I had very little sleep, I spent time the next day trying to relax, although often did too much. Even spending a few minutes to relax helped me to restore and rejuvenate my body, mind and spirit.
Meditation, Imagery and Visualization: When I could not sleep and felt exhausted the next morning, a guided meditation to relax my body helped me move from a tightened mind and muscles to a sense of peace. I also listened to soft music with visualizations guiding me into relaxation. Wonderful CDs that I used after surgery included Peggy Huddleston, Steven Halpern and O. Carl Simonton. Other popular CDs for cancer patients include Martin Rossman, M.D., Belleruth Naparstek and Jeanne Achterberg, Ph.D.
Diet: Throughout my cancer journey, I've been learning about cancer-fighting foods with specifics about what to eat and avoid. Post-surgery, I could hardly open my jaw. Similar to what I experienced with the surgery in 1998, my neurosurgeon moved my jaw near my left ear as he cut into my brain. The first three days after surgery, I drank my favorite organic green vegetable juice from Whole Foods and blended vegetable soup my mother made. By the fourth night, my jaw opened enough for me to eat other food. I continued my eating with many organic anti-cancer foods. Recovering from brain surgery and feeling completely weak physically, I craved different foods. Sometimes cancer patients need to change their diet at different phases of their treatments.
Exercise, Stretching and Movement: I started some exercise with brief walks on my street. With visual blurs through my left eye, I couldn't always see clearly when walking outside and even felt imbalanced. But after a few minutes walking I found my balance and strength each week. Ultimately decreasing my drugs in September, I started feeling able to reconnect to myself in other ways. I stretched daily increasing my circulation, supporting my nervous system and finding deeper calm. As a next step, I slowly began returning to the 5Rhythms movement practice founded by Gabrielle Roth. The more I connect with my body, the more I find myself.
Spirituality: With my awake brain surgery in 1998, I walked through a gateway into a spiritual journey. My brain tumor journey opened a significant window into my soul. I began to see my life experiences as opportunities for my soul's development. Through my spiritual journey, I look deeply into myself, cultivate new levels of knowledge and understanding about being alive. Those steps continue through this chapter recovery post-surgery. I'm connected to spirit and feel it with, through and around me. I ask questions, tune into guidance, my intuition and instincts. My spirituality has been a very important form of support. Spirituality helps both people with cancer and caregivers improving their quality of life.
Acupuncture: Treatments of acupuncture post-surgery support my recovery through relaxing my nervous system, supporting detoxification through my liver and kidney and building my immune system. Studies indicate health benefits for acupuncture to cancer patients, including reducing side effect from chemotherapy. Some acupuncture treatments can also support soul and spirit. My incredible Five Elements acupuncturist after my first brain tumor surgery supported my healing in those ways and many others.
Social Support: I could not have gotten through the last several months before and after brain surgery without wonderful support from family and friends. While Lotsa Helping Hands organized some of my support, a local non-profit Ceres Community Project even delivered me healthy meals. Along with asking for specific needs and managing it, the experience of receiving support without asking has been very helpful. People with cancer really need that too, and especially when they don't have the time and energy to request as well as organize their social support.
Osteopathy: Adjustments by my osteopath improve the flow of fluids in my body and better balance, especially within my brain post-surgery. The treatments feel like parts inside of my body become more integrated helping me to feel healthier. Osteopathics can treat the nervous system, immune system, circulation, musculoskeletal, joints, tissues, lymphatics, organs and other functions. I felt incredible adjustments through my osteopath's light touch. She even reduced the pain from the bruises on my head from surgery. As cancer occurs with imbalance in the body and then cancer treatments create side effects, improved internal functions through osteopathy can also strengthen the innate healing capacity. Osteopathic physicians (DOs) are well-trained in their medicine and specialty. Many people do not know that there are two types of complete physicians in the U.S.-- DOs and medical doctors (MDs). Both DOs and MDs are fully qualified physicians licensed to prescribe medication and perform surgery.
Supplements: Appointments with several providers created a daily schedule of supplements I take throughout the day. Providers have varied knowledge about developing supplement protocols for cancer patients. After dealing with a brain tumor for over 13 years, I know some conflicting perspectives. Jeanne Wallace, Ph.D., CNC and her practice Nutritional Solutions specialize in brain cancer and several other types of cancer. Other providers work with all cancer types, but may not have enough knowledge. Learning how to evaluate cancer treatments and their providers is important. I've also had supplements through intravenous infusions, including Vitamin C and glutathione.
Journaling: Finishing steroids the month after my surgery and more connected to myself, journaling gave me a vehicle to express my feelings, experiences, self-discovery and more about life. I certainly know that expressing rather than repressing feelings about any stressful life events can enhance well-being and reduce emotional stress. In research studies, psychologist James Pennebaker, Ph.D. and others have found those benefits along with improvements of immune functioning and a decrease in frequency of medical visits.
Massage and Touch: During the weeks that I approached my brain surgery, and as I've been recovering from an extremely invasive procedure, I haven't been very comfortable with massage. Yet I know that massage therapy through a provider with skill and integrity provides ease in the midst of disease. Relaxation, increased circulation, deeper breathing and other benefits offer incredible support. Although I haven't had quality massage since the surgery, I will find a quality provider. In the meantime, I've been giving myself light touch with some massage.
This only includes some of what I'll use in my integrative cancer care plan post-surgery with self-care strategies and treatments. Wherever I travel in my journey forward, I know that cancer care must address the whole person.
Jeannine Walston is co-founder and Executive Director of EmbodiWorks, a non-profit organization providing integrative cancer care resources about body, mind and spirit, including social and environmental health. She has extensive experience in cancer education and advocacy, health care policy, and both conventional and integrative cancer.
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