Kay: A Cancer Recurrence Story - CancerChoices

CancerChoices Senior Clinical Consultant Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, recalls her experience helping Kay through her recurrence.

Three years after Kay was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy, the cancer came back in her armpit. The first time around, she decided not to have the recommended chemotherapy. She has no regrets about not taking the chemo then. She agreed to take chemo this time around because her family was pressuring her to do so . . . not because she thought she needed it. She had a pretty rough go of it with side effects after her first couple of treatment sessions and asked for my help as an integrative oncology navigator for “harmonizing complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocialtherapy, and acupuncture with traditional treatment; help me with fear about the side effects.” She also was very clear that her faith and her church were very important to her. 

On our first meeting, it was apparent that Kay’s fear about treatment side effects was pushing her anxiety through the roof. Before going further with our session, I asked Kay to do a breathing exercise with me to help bring calm and clarity. After the exercise, she was amazed at how much it helped. In the coming weeks, she folded relaxing breathwork into her self-care routine. If I forgot to lead us in a relaxation exercise at the beginning of our sessions, she would ask if we could do that before going on!

Kay felt that her treatment team was not taking her concerns about side effects seriously enough and that some of them acted like she was a “thorn in their side.” She felt alone and not heard or understood. Kay is a retired nurse—she did her research and had good ideas on what might be making her sensitive to the side effects and what might help. Since she had been on the fence about even getting chemotherapy, she seemed on the verge of stopping treatment altogether because of the side effects. On the other hand, when her doctor suggested lowering the dose, Kay worried that this would lower treatment effectiveness.

In addition to helping Kay find healing practices and complementary therapies that would help her manage the anxiety and overwhelm, I coached her in how to effectively communicate her needs to her treatment team. That included her role-playing with me as though I were her oncology nurse or doctor. She learned quickly. Over time I could tell that communication with her providers shifted positively. 

I also referred her to an online cancer support group which she thought was immensely helpful in reducing her sense of being alone and not understood. She has continued to attend these.

She also attended a weekly stress management series led by a psychologist and offered through her church. She was impressed with how helpful the techniques were and actually plans to continue to see the psychologist one-on-one once the series is over. 

She said she was interested in complementary therapies, particularly supplements, that might help manage her side effects. I explained that with her being in active treatment and also having some complex medical issues, a naturopathic oncologist or integrative MD oncologist would be best suited to help her with this. I linked her with a naturopathic oncologist who works with many women with breast cancer. Kay thinks those consults have been more helpful than anything else for controlling her symptoms and improving her quality of life.

Now that she’s completed her chemotherapy, she wants to explore healing practices and therapies that will help keep the cancer from recurring. She is also looking forward to getting all this “medicalization” behind her: “I’m not sure how I’m going to fill that space now. God has always given me assignments to help other people. I’m interested in gardening. I’m interested in health. Now I want to know more about naturopathy. I enjoy helping people who are sick, especially with my nursing background. I don’t want a job in healthcare, but I can take them to treatments, sit with them during treatments, and be a peer who understands what it is to have been down this road.” 

In the height of her distress, Kay reached out for help, trusting that she would find her way to the right people and guidance. She was willing to learn how to do the “hard stuff” like saying how she felt; figuring out and learning how to communicate her needs; being open to exploring options outside of her knowledge and comfort zone; reaching out to her fellow cancer survivors for comfort and support; and, upon standing on the threshold between treatment and remission, ask herself: “What matters now? How can I serve my fellow travelers on the cancer path?”

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