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Helping you through breast cancer treatment

Guest blog: complementary therapies and using photography to explore emotions

Guest blog: complementary therapies and using photography to explore emotions

Hi Diane, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

In March 2013, aged 49, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I really thought that with my training and experience I understood what it would mean to have cancer but overnight I learned that I didn’t have a clue what it would really be like. Suddenly I couldn’t sleep, felt stress and anxious, felt nauseous, cried uncontrollably anywhere any time, any place. I was fortunate to be surrounded by complementary therapy friends who made some very helpful suggestions, and this is where my interest in caring about ‘the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis’ came from. I have since then been the guest speaker at most of the cancer support groups in North Staffordshire and have worked with Breast Cancer Care and MacMillan Cancer providing Wellbeing Workshops for Cancer Patients.

What is a complementary therapist?

A complementary therapist is trained and insured to provide treatments such as: aromatherapy, reflexology, body massage therapy, reiki, yoga etc. They work alongside conventional health care practitioners, and treatments are often used to help support the body’s natural self-healing mechanisms, to ease or alter a patient’s perception of pain, and to support patients through periods of anxiety and fear, associated with illness.

Complementary therapies can help people with cancer to feel better and may improve quality of life. They may also help patients to cope better with symptoms and stress caused by cancer.

Complementary therapies are different to ‘alternative therapies’. Alternative therapies are treatments that are used instead of conventional treatment.

It is important that someone who has either had cancer or who has a current cancer diagnosis is treated by a therapist who is insured, trained, qualified and experienced in cancer care. You must never be afraid to ask these questions. A public register is available at FHT.

It is always advisable to discuss any therapies with a member of your medical team prior to having treatment. It is important to understand that complementary therapies do not replace conventional healthcare.

How do you use photography in your complementary therapy practice to help people affected by cancer?

After winning the FHT prize in 2015 I bought a camera, decided to enrol onto an Adult Community Learning Course with Stoke Council and our final project was to put a journey into photographs. I chose to tell my cancer story through photographs and the response to it was overwhelming. I now have around 35 photos. They are all non-clinical, mainly nature pictures that describe the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis, called ‘Focus on Emotions’. This collection has been developed by reflecting on my personal journey and from talking to my family, friends and many other cancer patients to try and make it as comprehensive as possible. I use these both in exhibitions and presentations to healthcare professionals, cancer patients, relatives, friends and colleagues. Each time the response has been amazing with very complimentary feedback.

Can you show us some examples?

This picture of Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland represents how I felt when the consultant told me that I had breast cancer. In the foreground of this picture you can see people going about life as normal whilst my life came tumbling down.

Diagnosis

This photograph is a statue in the beautiful Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire called the 50p man. This reminds me how I felt in the first few months when I wanted to hide away and pretend that breast cancer wasn’t happening. In the background you can see people going about everyday life and I longed to be one of those ‘normal’ people.

Denial

Taken in our garden with the early morning dew after the frost had left the nasturtiums limp and lifeless. This represents the tears that I cried. Tears of sadness, confusion, uncertainty and pain.

Tears

This is a beautiful although poisonous laburnum arch with stunning purple allium flowers standing tall and strong below. The laburnum represents chemotherapy and the allium are the medical staff who care for us during treatment. The light at the end is where we all hope to be when we have gone through treatment. Taken at the Dorothy Clive Gardens.

Tunnel of treatment

This represents the fog that comes over us both as a result of treatment and the stress that a cancer diagnosis brings. Taken from my bedroom window.

Brain fog

This needs no explanation; it is how many people tell me they feel.

Horse muck (aka s**t)

This photo was taken by my son, Alex. I asked Alex and my husband, Peter if they would try to express their feeling in a photograph. This shows that they felt they had gone into a shadow and the spring daffodils were all dying back. They didn’t know when they would experience bright blue skies again.

Shadows

This empty beach represents the feeling of loneliness and emptiness that the end of treatment often brings. The blue sky represents a happiness that others think you should be feeling. Just like the beach, life was busy and full and just as the tide has gone out treatment stops, and it can bring feelings of loneliness. Whilst some people will sadly never reach the end of treatment and this is a picture they can only dream about.

End of treatment

This is the early morning dew in our garden on the hazel tree. The delicate dew drop represents the tears we cry and the new bud inside is the new person developing.

New beginning

Is there anything I can do myself? Do you have any tips or recommendations that might help me as I go through my treatment/try to move forward after treatment?

I think self-care and kindness are important during treatment. Finding ways to relax such as mindfulness meditation is excellent. I also used self help hand reflexology points, and had a regular reflexology treatment and back massage. I often say to people ‘just be your own best friend’. If you would suggest that a friend rests then why not listen to your own advice. Aromatherapy oils can be very beneficial to help with emotional stress – for example 3-4 drops of lavender on your pillow can help insomnia. Take care not to overdo it as it then has the opposite effect and will keep you awake!! Treat yourself to good quality oils. There are some lovely pre-blended essential oils available – some have even been developed specifically for cancer patients. It’s best to check with your medical team before using essential oils and if you are ever in any doubt seek advice.

At my wellbeing workshops my teaching is based around the 5 Ways to Wellbeing –‘ Keep Learning, Give, Connect, Take Notice and Be Active’. I have found these can be very helpful for improving general wellbeing. I also co-produced a self-help reflexology hand chart that shows simple points and routines that can help with some of the common problems experienced during cancer diagnosis and treatment, which is why we were finalists in 2017. This is available on my website.

There are some excellent wellbeing workshops and retreats for cancer patients, and it is worth exploring what is available in your area, some charities may provide them free of charge. Joining a local support group can also be very helpful.

I am mid-way through my breast cancer treatment and it’s difficult to explain to my husband how I feel. Can you suggest how I might explain my feelings to him?

I think it is very difficult trying to explain our emotions to other people, especially our loved ones. I was very aware of the difficulties my husband and family might be experiencing as I had been a volunteer at our hospice on a project which cared for carers, which was a privilege to be involved with.

You might find it helpful to show him my photographs, you could even try to take some of your own by reflecting on your emotions and thinking how you could express them in a photo – any camera will do, even a phone. I have included a photo taken by my son which reflects the emotions of my husband and himself. Don’t forget to ask him about his feelings as well.

I have had cancer patients and loved ones at my presentations who have found themselves suddenly able to talk after seeing emotions expressed through photography it seems to remove barriers. They feel better just knowing that others have experienced similar emotions. I have found that using photos seems to encourage people reflect their own personal journey.

I have just finished my breast cancer treatment and I’m finding it hard to explain how I am feeling to my friends and family. Do you have any advice?

The end of treatment is a difficult time and I have used a photo of a deserted beach to explain this emotion. I think it takes time to find the ‘new you’ that emerges following treatment I have used the new bud in a dew drop to explore those feelings. We can never be the same after a cancer diagnosis no matter how simple or aggressive the treatment.

Cancer changes our lives and we need to learn how to live with that. It can be helpful to reflect on your diagnosis and treatment by writing a diary and then expressing those emotions through photography you could even show your pictures to your family and friends which might be easier than talking.
I also found myself writing a poem, but perhaps you will read more about that in another post…

Diane is married with two grown up children and four lovely grandchildren. She lives and works in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. In 2013 she graduated from Staffordshire University with Distinction in the Foundation Degree in Clinical Complementary Therapy. She also did further training to provide treatment for cancer patients. In 2015 she won the national prize from the Federation of Holistic therapists (FHT) ‘Award for Excellence in Practice, and in 2017 she was a finalist. Diane worked as a volunteer therapist at her local hospice for 2 years and co-founded a business called ‘Hands 4 Wellbeing

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