Breast cancer survivors learn to relax
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Go home from work a different way. Enter through a different door. Sit in a different chair.
Those are a few of the tips for breaking a bad eating habit that certified wellness coach Laura Crooks gave Patty Denham as part of the new Relax to Recover program being offered to West Penn Allegheny Health System's breast cancer patients by its integrated medicine program. Relax to Recover is funded by a one-year, $22,800 grant from the Pittsburgh affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
"I really wanted to focus on my eating. I'm a carb addict. Cancer likes sugar. I come home from work, sit a couple minutes, then start eating," said Ms. Denham, 57, of Indiana Township, executive secretary in Allegheny General's anesthesia department. She had breast cancer surgery in January and radiation in February.
Ms. Denham also plans to learn stress management techniques from Ms. Crooks.
Healthy eating and stress management are two-thirds of the Relax to Recover offerings. The program also deals with regular exercise.
"The reason we're trying to do this is research would tell us these things make people feel better, and evidence shows it has some impact on survival," said Betsy O'Neill, medical director of the integrated medicine program. "The strongest research is on diet and exercise. The stress management part, the evidence is more about quality of life, less anxiety, less fatigue, things like that."
According to the National Cancer Institute, studies done over the past 30 years examining the relationship between such psychological factors as stress and cancer risk have produced conflicting results. "Although the results of some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, a direct cause-and-effect relationship has not been proven," the institute said in a fact sheet.
Ms. Denham said, "Exercise is not a problem for me because I enjoy that. It's getting back to speed. I don't feel the same as before." She blames her post-breast cancer medication therapy, anastrozole, better known by its trade name, Arimidex. She has put on five pounds since she started taking the drug and wants "to eat like my husband eats. I can't do that."
Dr. O'Neill gave a presentation on Relax to Recover when the program started in March. The department also made up fliers and bookmarks to give to nurses to distribute in departments related to the hospital's cancer center, such as chemotherapy and radiation.
The program is open to all West Penn Allegheny Health System patients who are newly diagnosed, in treatment or post-treatment. "Even if they're 10 years out, that still works for me," said Ms. Crooks, who along with being a wellness coach is a registered nurse.
Patients are given the choice of meeting with Ms. Crooks in person, talking to her by phone or communicating by email. Most of them prefer the phone, and she provides extra support by email.
She explains the topics and asks them to choose one to start with. "They all interact."
The women, Ms. Crooks said, are amenable to lifestyle changes.
"It's all stuff they've heard before. It's how do they do it. It breaks it down to little chunks," she said. "[It's] what small thing can you do to improve. ... We're just looking for progress. ... Any better decision is progress."
For example, when teaching them how to reduce stress, she encourages them to make time to do something for themselves, perhaps a hobby or two minutes of breath work or watching the clouds.
"Focusing for two minutes on breathing, two minutes leads to five minutes, hopefully more," she said. "Sitting for two minutes and watching your breath -- it sounds so much more doable."
When the conversation turns to diet, she focuses on eating antioxidant foods like leafy greens and berries -- how to cook them, where to buy them. "It depends what they're eating currently," she said. "Getting them to eat breakfast. Breakfast is a place to start."
So far, recruitment into the program has been very slow -- just five women have signed up. They have yet to recruit anyone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I think it's easier to get people interested when they're a little bit further down the road," Dr. O'Neill said. "It's like people are getting so much information ... they can't really process all of it."
Still, she said, "The one other thing I would say is the only good thing about a cancer diagnosis is it's a teachable moment, like people quit smoking after a heart attack. People make changes in their lifestyle. It's a great opportunity to make changes to make life healthier."
And that's what the local Komen affiliate was looking for when it gave the grant for Relax to Recover.
"There's a lot of stress that women go through, both when they're diagnosed and during treatment," said Kathy Purcell, executive director. "There's even stress and anxiety when treatment is finished -- 'What do I do now to prevent a recurrence?' Having coping skills is extremely valuable."
Breast cancer patients at any WPAHS hospital who are interested in Relax to Recover should call Laura Crooks at 412-596-9516.
First Published July 9, 2012 12:00 am