Cancer is a disease that definitely doesn't discriminate. It can affect anyone, of any age, gender, race or sexuality across the globe and has been a popular area of research for many decades, maybe even centuries.
A cancer diagnosis is life-changing and is not a linear journey to manage. At times, the path can seem straightforward and at other times, there may be detours and roadblocks, which is why it's best to not travel alone. For some people, having a passenger to help offer support is one of the greatest forms of assistance throughout this challenging time. For others, a busload of people maybe is more beneficial. It can be an overwhelming time, especially in the beginning as you get your head around all of the medical mumbo jumbo, the scheduling of appointments and in some cases lots of medical procedures getting underway. Naturally, this is physically demanding, but it can take a toll on our mental wellness as well.
If you or someone you care about has been affected by cancer, what are some simple yet effective holistic ways to support our mental wellness? Throughout this article, we will highlight a few different holistic approaches that are easy to implement, have many therapeutic benefits for a cancer patient and provide support to other people.
Firstly, what does a holistic approach mean? A holistic approach looks at the whole health picture, considering the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state of a person. If any one of these aspects is a bit out of whack, the others become out of balance as well. Over time, this disharmony can bring about disease within the body and mind.
Let's assume the medical professional has the physical aspect on the correct path for harmony as they treat the cancer within your loved one; that is their speciality. Now, let's look at the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects and uncover some tools to support mental wellness!
It's important to recognise that there is not just one magic answer that holds the key to assisting mental wellness throughout this challenging phase. One point to remember is that nobody's journey is the same as the next person, which makes sense when you consider everybody is unique. Therefore, having a collection of tools and techniques under your belt gives you a great foundation for being able to offer assistance to your loved one.
The first useful tool to practice would be meditation
Meditation is a supportive practice that helps to train your brain whilst building a deep connection and awareness to your true inner being. It has the power to increase self-awareness, self-acceptance, boost confidence, provide better thinking and problem-solving abilities and another bonus is that it provides better physical functioning of the body! Clinical studies have shown that with relaxation and meditation practice, people have experienced decreased levels of anxiety, stress, pain, depression and also gained other physical benefits. It is a practice that has been scientifically proven to help boost your immunity (very handy when some cancer treatments can lower immune systems), provide better mental clarity (fantastic to help with 'chemo brain') and build resilience. There are so many research studies happening worldwide to scientifically prove the depth of benefits to meditation, so when the findings are all so promising, why wouldn't you want to integrate that into your life?
Now, it's quite possible that many of you reading this are thinking: "meditation? I can't sit cross-legged on the floor!" The beauty is that there are many different styles and techniques that come under the meditation umbrella, meaning there is always a style to suit everyone. Sometimes, trial and error will help you find what best suits you. Speaking to a qualified meditation coach or teacher is a fantastic way to gain insight and direction to find a great place to start.
The second tool to add to your supportive belt would be 'Resisting Temptations to Rescue' and instead 'Hold Space'
When someone we love is affected by cancer, it's a common reaction to throw every cliché saying of support and encouragement at them. The ones like "we will get through this together," or "you are not alone," or even "anytime you need anything, you let me know". These uplifting catchphrases by well-meaning people are wonderful and come from the best of intentions, however, for some people they mean nothing but empty words. Take a moment and actually talk to your loved one and ask what it is they require or desire. What do they need? What do they want? How are they feeling? You may feel a little uncouth asking your loved one these bold questions but it is more favourable to their care if you can give them what they require as opposed to assuming and often falling back to what you would want personally if the roles were reversed. Once you know the answers to these questions, then you are able to take more appropriate action. My favourite example is that people may cook a dozen lasagnas so that their loved one doesn't need to cook and can just 'relax'. But, what if cooking up a storm in the kitchen is actually a therapeutic coping strategy and you've taken that option away from them? Cancer patients go on a journey that is not easy, it is challenging physically and emotionally can be a rollercoaster ride. Sometimes, just the simple act of holding space with your loved one can be a healing gesture within itself. To hold space means that you are being 100% present and committed to your loved one, at that moment. You pop down your phone, forget multitasking and just 'be' with your loved one. Holding space for someone is a valuable tool that demonstrates your compassion, patience and kindness for someone, holding no judgment or distraction. You give your full attention to your loved ones and allow an opportunity for them to be heard and understood.
The next tool to the carer givers support system would be gratitude practice
This is definitely an avenue that can be explored individually (for the cancer patient as well as the carer… or anyone really) but there is nothing stopping gratitude practice from becoming a bonding experience. A gratitude practice can be performed in a variety of ways; a gratitude diary/journal, daily gratitude reflection, gratitude meditations, the list can go on. In short, it is a daily practice that reflects on various things you appreciate or feel grateful for every day. This is not a false sense of positivity, nor is it ignoring the worries and stresses that we encounter. But, the simple act of looking for something and acknowledging your appreciation for them (no matter how small and insignificant it may seem), can actually create chemical shifts within the brain. The brain releases neurotransmitters called dopamine which when combined with other neurotransmitters, help us to feel good, increase feelings of happiness, motivation and alertness. Research suggests that dopamine has the ability to enhance our mood, emotions, pain management ability, sleep quality and some organ function. It ticks so many boxes of boosting our wellbeing, it just makes sense to add this tool into your day.
The next tool to add to your collection is Self-care
This sounds obvious but the thing is, 'self-care has become a bit more of a fashionable trend lately and seems to have lost its true meaning. Oxford Languages defines 'self-care' as "the practice of protecting one's wellbeing, health and happiness, in particular during times of stress." As much as it is lovely to get yourself that new outfit, have a couple of drinks (if safe to do so), get some pampering or whatever it is you choose to indulge in, it's not genuine self-care. To truly practice self-care, look for options that bring about a physiological change to your wellbeing. These are options that can again be done individually, with a carer, support person or even a group of friends such as; meditation, reflective journaling, art therapy, movement meditations, social walking, being in nature and grounding yourself. The list extends further but these are just some of the holistic activities that are easily accessible. The key is to remember that definition from Oxford Languages; "the practice of protecting one's wellbeing, health and happiness, in particular during times of stress," emphasis here being on 'practice'. With practice, these activities will become easier and that repetition will produce a habitual experience that, combined with some patience and kindness, will manifest benefits both physically and mentally.
Lastly, the final tool for today to include in your kit would be to stay connected
There is not a person on the planet who hasn't experienced a time where they have just wanted to withdraw from being around others and just be alone. It's a relatable response to unpleasant circumstances. When you or a loved one is on the difficult journey of fighting this disease, it's possible that this desire to withdraw can increase at times. This can be ok, in small healthy doses. Sometimes, having that quiet moment alone is wonderfully therapeutic and used as a coping strategy. Honouring and respecting this need is essential to ensure that the unwell individual has an opportunity to actively be involved within the healing process as opposed to just being dictated to. However, one thing we do all have in common is that we are human beings and we are wired for love and connection.
Social Wellness as it's called, is about maintaining healthy relationships with ourselves and others, having a strong social network to support us and keeping connected. Scientific studies have shown that a balanced social wellness system can help manage stress, anxiety and pain management as well as improve our immune system and endocrine system. If you notice that your loved one is starting to isolate themselves more than you feel they should be, hold space for them and have that (possibly confronting) conversation with them. Don't be afraid to check in with how they really are going, perhaps arrange to participate in a self-care activity together and involve them in something new. If you still find your loved one is struggling, always seek professional help.
Meditation and holistic counselling can be a nurturing, comforting avenue of assistance during this difficult time. However, as mentioned at the very beginning, navigating the journey of fighting cancer can sometimes take a busload of people and use all the people within the circle of trust. The doctors, the coaches, the counsellors and of course loved ones. Nobody should ever have to travel solo on this trip.