A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Beauty & the Beast of Breast Cancer

In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, women are pummeled with the message that to be loved and happy, they must possess beauty and physical perfection.

It’s hard enough for the average person not to succumb to this pressure, but how much more for women battling cancer.

Breast cancer treatment can assault a woman's femininity, sexuality and attractiveness.

I asked my friend, Virginia Apperson, how to deal with this. I figured she was the best person to turn to since she's a Jungian psychoanalyst and author of the book, “The Presence of the Feminine in Film."

“We’re a superficial culture that sets certain requirements as to what is beautiful—especially for women—and if we don’t fall into these standards, we don’t feel like we have value,” she said.

"But the irony is that it’s out of suffering and illness that we deepen ourselves and discover aspects of ourselves that are more genuine than striving for outer perfection."

The reality is, there’s nothing pretty or easy about cancer treatment. However, in the midst of it, there are choices as to how to endure, she pointed out.

Virginia said you pretty much have to put on blinders and 'start living in another ‘universe’ (how Jungian). In other words, find a place where not being perfect is acceptable.

"Surround yourself with others who can commiserate with your issues, and can acknowledge what you’re going through and grieve with you," she advised. That can be found with friends, support groups, or with a therapist or a pastor.

She also suggested expressing your feelings in "physical form"-- as she put it-- through writing or art.

“We’ve so sanitized our world and been told not to have bad feelings. But, the hope is, if you confront the despair and express it, it ceases to have power over you.”

Instead, she said, it could give you a deeper understanding of who you are and what's important to you.

Another tip - avoid magazines and TV programs that emphasize beauty and glamor. There's nothing worse than picking up a copy of Vogue with a cover of an emaciated teenager airbrushed to perfection.

Virginia encourages women to seek inspiration from role models in literature and film "who allow their inner self to be valued"--"characters who have the fierceness to say, ‘I’m not playing along!’ "

A good example is the movie, "Cold Mountain." Ruby -- who is plainly in need of a makeover--displays "a life force that’s unstoppable,” as Virginia describes it. Ruby is paired with Ada, who although is beautiful, finds that beauty won't keep her alive. Ada learns how to be strong through Ruby and Ruby learns how to dress better through Ada, which all leads to a somewhat happy ending.

So toss out your latest copy of People and watch an old Betty Davis movie instead. After all, Betty was not the beauty that many starlets of her time were, but she outshone and outlasted them all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Breast Cancer Makes You Fat

It's bad enough one has to suffer through cancer, but to add insult to injury, it can make you fat.

Jill Binkley, a physical therapist and breast cancer survivor, explains why.

Jill founded TurningPoint Women's Healthcare (http://www.myturningpoint.org/), a comprehensive rehabilitation program for breast cancer patients. It provides physical and massage therapy, as well as nutrition and exercise counseling.

“About 60 percent of women with breast cancer gain weight, which most women don’t expect…in fact, they assume they’ll lose weight,” she says.

But, due to metabolic and chemical changes from chemotherapy--plus, menopause kicking in -- the scale tips toward the upward direction for most women. Add a sizable dose of steroids to help the medicine go down and you're looking at a new dress size (or two).

A solid nutritional plan and regular exercise program -- 40 minutes per day 4-5 days per week--can help stave off unwanted pounds.

This is not only good for your wardrobe, but for your health as well--since weight gain is a risk factor for developing lymphedema and cancer recurrence.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dragon Boat

I obviously need to get out more. I had never heard of a dragon boat, much less dragon boat racing. But to my surprise, it's quite the rage, especially among breast cancer survivors.

Rowing, in general, is the perfect exercise for the area that's been marred and scarred by surgery since it builds and strengthens chest-arm-back muscles. In addition to fitness, the dragon boat brings survivors together for fun, camaraderie and an enhanced body image.

Besides rowing for fitness, dragon boat teams participate in races to raise money for breast cancer research. So grab an oar, smear on some sunscreen and hit the water. It could benefit your life and others. (www.myturningpoint.org/DragonBoatAtlanta).

Benefits of PT and MT

I recently discovered a new organization aimed at helping breast cancer survivors recover from treatment.

TurningPoint Women's Healthcare (http://www.myturningpoint.org/) is a comprehensive rehabilitation program that offers physical therapy, massage therapy, exercise and nutritional advice and professional counseling.

It was founded by Jill Binkley, based on her experience as a professional physical therapist and breast cancer survivor.
“Anyone recovering from knee surgery is automatically sent to rehab afterwards,, but this isn't the case for breast cancer patients,” she says.

Binkley cites numerous problems resulting from breast cancer treatment, including limited range of motion, lack of strength and flexibility, and pain caused by scarring and swelling of tissues.

“Anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of survivors up to four years post-op have shoulder, breast/chest wall pain, as well as pain in the donor site from reconstruction,” she explains. “Overcoming pain and physical limitations can help women resume their normal activities."

Getting your body "back to normal" after all it's been through and helping you resume your life can also help ease feelings of anger, hopelessness, powerlessness and frustration that your body isn't the same as before treatment. And we all know what that feels like.

Physical therapy and massage therapy can help with range of motion issues and pain control.

Plus, massage has an additional benefit, she points out: “There are several strong studies that show massage during and after treatment increases the immune system function."

As if we really needed an excuse to get a massage...