My experience with complementary therapies during breast cancer treatment
In 2001, when she was 34, Claire Morgan was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. This is a rare type of breast cancer. It is called 'inflammatory' because the breast becomes inflamed. Claire had chemotherapy, surgery and then hormone therapy to treat her cancer. This is Claire’s story, describing how complementary therapies helped her through some very difficult times.
I was slightly concerned about some changes in my breast, but breast cancer hadn’t entered my mind. My GP referred me to the breast clinic. I had various tests including a mammogram, an ultrasound and a core biopsy and was told that I had breast cancer.
There was a large tumour in my left breast and the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes under my arm. I also had a smaller tumour in my right breast.
This was already a very stressful time for me. My mum had only just finished having chemotherapy for colon cancer, and my aunt was also being treated for breast cancer. So when I was diagnosed, my initial thoughts were ‘what am I going to tell my dad and the rest of the family? How am I going to tell them?’
The team involved in my care were aware of my family situation and told me that an oncology counsellor was available at the hospital. I began my chemotherapy a couple of weeks after my diagnosis and started seeing the counsellor at the same time. I also started to attend a monthly support group. I found both of these things helped me to cope with the issues I was facing.
I also arranged to have my chemotherapy on the day that a voluntary massage therapist was in the cancer unit. This meant that I could have a massage at the same time as my chemotherapy. I found that this helped to reduce the stress associated with the treatment and in a way, it made going for chemo a bit of a treat!
Having breast surgery
Five months later, I had a bilateral mastectomy, which means that I had an operation to remove both my breasts. The doctors had to take out the lymph nodes under my arms too. At the same time, my breasts were reconstructed, using skin and tissue from my back and breast implants.
To begin with, my recovery was good. But unfortunately, over the next few months, I became very unwell with various complications related to my treatment. I had to spend about three months in hospital.
Experiencing different therapies
After 2 weeks in intensive care, I moved to a ward where I started to have physiotherapy and occupational therapy. I believe these therapies helped me to function again.
The occupational therapist sometimes used something called guided visualisation to help me relax. I remember one session particularly well, because I actually felt as though I was walking on sand by the sea. Having spent two months not being able to get out of bed, it was a wonderful feeling. This, combined with counselling sessions and regular massage therapy, was crucial in reducing my distress and helping me to cope with the situation.
Support after leaving hospital
When I left hospital, I asked to be referred to a hospice, which I attended one day a week. At the hospice I received a lot of emotional and psychological support, and was able to access complementary therapies such as reflexology and relaxation sessions.
Sadly, in 2002, my mother died. Trying to cope with her death and the uncertainties about my own future, I started art therapy at the hospice. I found that these one to one sessions helped me to make sense of the previous 2 years. I carried on receiving support from the hospice until 2003, when I decided to discharge myself.
My life now
I now work as a volunteer for the Paul D'auria Cancer Support Centre. This registered charity provides information, support and complementary therapies for people affected by cancer. I still attend various support and self-help groups that contribute to my continued good health and general sense of well-being. I continue to take medication, including tamoxifen, but I consider myself healthy.
Complementary therapies and me
I will always be grateful for the dedication and skill of the medical profession. But I have also been fortunate to have access to a wide range of complementary therapies throughout my cancer journey. I have found complementary therapies respond to me as a whole person and have helped to bring balance to the mind, body and spirit. These therapies have been invaluable in helping me feel more in control of my life and to have confidence in the future, whatever it holds.
- Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with nearly 44,000 women diagnosed every year.
- Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer. Only about 1 or 2 breast cancers out of every 100 diagnosed (1 or 2%) are this type
- Claire was unusual to be diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50.
- Surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy are all used to treat breast cancer.
These links will take you to CancerHelp UK’s information
- About inflammatory breast cancer explains how the treatment can be slightly different than for other types of breast cancer
- On treatments for breast cancer including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy
- About complementary therapies including current research in this area, and detailed information on individual therapies
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