The benefits of emotional healing in cancer

I took my radiation oncologist by surprise one day. She’s an absolutely gorgeous woman, a real breath of fresh air when you’re dealing with the ups and downs of treatment. And when she asked me the standard question about how I was feeling , I took great delight in telling her I felt better than I’d felt in 10 years! ‘Well’ she said ‘I’ve never heard anybody say that before’. I’d only just finished radio and chemo only weeks before that.

And I put it down to the fact that I’ve done a ton of emotional healing. Not that I went to a therapist every week, far from it. But I’d spent a couple of sessions dealing with those difficult feelings that come with the experience of cancer. The depression, the fear, the anxiety. And some of those feelings I’d carried for years. And they felt a bit like a darkness hanging over me, a feeling I couldn’t shake. I still don’t know where it came from, only that it was dark and ominous. A real sadness, deep within me. Maybe it had something to do with the shock of my daughter’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. Maybe it went further back than that. Add to that the stress in my life and I was a recipe for breast cancer. A sitting duck. And I felt completely alone.

I often wonder why emotional healing is so often overlooked in the medical treatment of cancer? We can’t continue to deny how important it is, can we. Back in 1995 at King’s College Hospital in London, a team of psychiatrists, radiologists, oncologists and surgeons undertook research which showed severe life events, and the way in which we cope with them as individuals, significantly predicts a diagnosis of breast cancer. And what I find even more incredible is that a woman with metastatic breast cancer has a longer survival time associated with a reduction in depression score. They’ve also shown that animals experiencing the stress of social isolation go on to develop cancer whereas animals that are kept in groups remain cancer free.

Because there’s no getting away from it, is there. We are emotional beings and our emotions affect our bodies. Why do you think Playboy sells so well? It doesn’t take Einstein to work it out. If you get a fright, your muscles tense and your heart races, if you feel sad, you cry. If you’re aroused, things happen! Emotions have a physical consequence, don’t they.

And it’s important to consider the impact of this when you’re dealing with cancer, isn’t it. Because, it’s a disease that generates a minefield of negative emotions. And it’s been shown these emotions cause inflammation. And this inflammation affects cancer incidence, progression and even survival. So it’s essential to break the cycle, isn’t it. Many people don’t realise that when you are holding onto emotions that are pouring inflammation through your body, it’s difficult to heal. And I get so frustrated when emotional healing is seen as an optional extra. There doesn’t seem to be anything optional about it. I often wonder if medical treatment may be even more successful if the emotional stuff is out of the way.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a group of doctors about the importance of emotional healing in serious illness. I love it when I get the chance to do this. Slowly I see the message getting through. The light is dawning. And it’s important that doctors understand the role emotions play in health. Because people living with cancer and other serious illnesses need this information, don’t they. We can wipe the slate clean with chemo, radio and surgery but what if those emotions are still in play? It’s not too difficult to see that physical healing without the emotional or emotional without the physical is only doing half the job, isn’t it. And one of the saddest things is, I’ve seen lives destroyed, not by the cancer, but by the emotions that continue long after the cancer is gone.

And that dark ominous feeling… well I’m relieved to say it has just vanished. I noticed it wasn’t hanging over me any more just before my 6th cycle of chemo. It was a revelation. I suddenly felt lighter, freer. I didn’t notice it disappear, it just seemed to do that all by itself. It’s like I set the ball in motion, and that other part of me, that part that was creating the feeling in the first place, just knew what to do to let it go. And eighteen months down the track, the feeling of wellbeing and lightness has continued and I feel so much joy now in the simple beauty of everyday life…

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