SISTER BRIGID McCARTHY NEVER SUSPECTED IT. THEN CAME THE DREADED WORDS NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR: “IT’S CANCER.” McCARTHY, WHO IN 1997 HELPED ESTABLISH WELL OF MERCY, A MINISTRY OF HOSPITALITY AND HEALING SPONSORED BY THE SISTERS OF MERCY, HAD BEEN OFFERING LOVE AND SUPPORT TO THOSE IN NEED FOR YEARS. NOW, SUDDENLY, THE TABLES WERE TURNED.
“I had no symptoms,” McCarthy says about the diagnosis of uterine cancer. “When I had a routine gynecological check, abnormal cells were discovered. Still, I really didn’t believe that I would be diagnosed positive. I thought the tests would show I was negative. I was stunned.”
After her oncologist delivered the life-altering news, McCarthy says her thoughts raced to dealing with cancer and the debilitating effects of upcoming chemo – therapy and radiation treatments.
“What I did first was seek emotional support, which came from my community (Sisters of Mercy), my family, my friends, my co-ministry staff at Well of Mercy, to name a few. In a special way, I turned to my faith, believing this was going to be okay,” she recalls.
McCarthy says her spirituality made “engaging a holistic doctor to complement the medical in any way that was approved by the oncologist” a comfortable approach.
Enter Russ Greenfield, MD, an integrative medicine pioneer and frequent guest on television’s popular The Dr. Oz Show. He and McCarthy had met years earlier at a business meeting, and after her diagnosis they worked together to create a treatment plan.
“Isn’t he wonderful?” she says of Dr. Greenfield. “He’s a very dear man, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. Anything he suggests, like taking vitamins, is run by my oncologist. It’s not using one hand and then using the other, independent from one another. My oncologist is the point person, and the holistic doctor is the supplement. I want the treatments to complement each other.”
That’s exactly the idea behind an integrative approach to dealing with a disease such as cancer and the pain that often accompanies it.
“First and foremost, in 2011, people should not be in significant pain,” Dr. Greenfield says. “We have too many tools available to us. Many times what we need to do is just ask. We’re not eschewing conventional medicine by any means. Rather than an ‘either/or’ equation, an integrative approach is an ‘and’ equation.
“There are many good conventional medical solutions to pain reduction that can range from prescription pharmaceuticals to specific treatments. From an alternative perspective, we want people in any situation, especially in treatment of cancer, to have some control over their own unique circumstance. One way we can do this is by giving people access to information and actions that can help them reduce the pain, oftentimes on their own.”
FORMS OF INTEGRATIVE HEALING
In general, Dr. Greenfield points out that treating cancer pain on a holistic level can take many forms, depending on individual preference. He offers the following suggestions:
• Food & diet. “People should eat what they enjoy and, whenever possible, focus on anti-inflammatory foods. Mediterranean and Asian foods are ideal. Many foods can help reduce pain by lessening inflammation in the body, such as coldwater fish because of their anti-inflammatory omega-3s, and brightly colored vegetables and fruit because they contain antioxidents. When people have difficulty eating because of a decreased appetite or a change in the way food tastes, making certain they can enjoy food is important. We know stress can worsen pain, so it’s key to let people engage in life to the fullest extent. Part of that is eating what they like.” He also suggests making breakfast the largest meal, followed by a medium-sized lunch and a smaller dinner.
• Mind/body therapies such as guided imagery or hypnosis. “There are many approaches the mind can use to dial down the volume of the pain, oftentimes like a radio dial. It’s intriguing because so many people feel that pain is a physical thing, yet we can use our emotions or our spirit to help with that. There’s a wealth of research showing that by learning to utilize our mind we can lessen discomfort.”
• Yoga & exercise. “[In integrative medicine] we also talk about things like yoga and mindful meditation. I’m also a big, big fan of exercise. It is one of the best antidepressants. If you can exercise in an appropriate fashion, you can make things better. Stress and depression worsen pain. It’s good to meet with a physical therapist to establish a healthy exercise program.”
• Chinese medicine, particularly acupuncture. “There are strong data suggesting that this helps relieve nausea, lessen pain and lessen anxiety. Have a treatment either a day or two before chemo or a day or two after. Acupuncture can balance the energy in the person.”
• Massage therapy. “Anything involving appropriate human touch is good.”
• Vitamins & herbs. “These can help, but you have to be very cautious about using them with chemo. Speak with your doctor.”
• Keeping a journal. Journaling is an effective tool. Some people find gratitude or wellness journals help them focus on the positives during difficult times. Remember to record emotions, thoughts, feelings and activities to help release fears and reduce the emotional pain and anxiety that can be stumbling blocks to healing.
• Listening to music. Music can calm, soothe and heal. It has the power to transport you to a better mindset. Select a genre of music that appeals to you, and make a playlist for your iPod or other favorite mobile device. If technology is a challenge, don’t hesitate to enlist help. There may be a friend or teenager who is eager to show off media skills.
GETTING STARTED, INTEGRATIVELY
So how does a physician know which of these items to suggest or which to try first?
“Typically, physicians don’t recommend all these options to everybody at once because, frankly, it can be overwhelming.” Dr. Greenfield says. “You need to spend some time with people and get to actually know them. You need to get an idea of their preferences, their value system. Make an offer to them, not a demand or a mandate. Maybe acupuncture could be helpful, but if they don’t like needles, you might move that option down the list.”
Those in pain should consider what feels comfortable to them. McCarthy, who spends her days in the quiet respite of Well of Mercy, was already familiar with holistic therapies and their power to heal and comfort. But when she was diagnosed with cancer, she had to dig deep. After a complete hysterectomy, she pursued many solutions to lessen the pain and side effects of chemo – therapy and radiation.
McCarthy uses hypnosis, body massage, essential oils and a variety of meditation practices to focus her thoughts and reduce the pain and anxiety of chemotherapy. She also works with a Healing Touch practitioner during the last hour of chemo.
“Healing Touch offers me comfort and helps clear my body of the toxic effects of chemotherapy. The practitioner’s hands, both on and above me, balance and clear my body’s energy field. This therapy creates a deep sense of inner peace and touches more than my body — it touches my soul.”
McCarthy says that she first tried Healing Touch to deal with the metallic taste that many people experience from chemo.
“With Healing Touch, I never experienced a metallic taste at all,” McCarthy says. “It may sound insignificant, but that was comforting to me.”
INTEGRATING DIET, EXERCISE AND LAUGHTER
Dr. Greenfield recommended that McCarthy drink green tea, eat more vegetables than fruit (because they contain a wider variety of phytochemicals than fruits that may also offer health benefits) and eat plant-based protein, like nuts. Other suggestions included adding vitamins D and B-6 to her regime. Both were approved by her oncologist.
“B-6 helps with numbness in my hands and legs [after chemotherapy],” she says. “That side effect had been hard for me.”
Exercise and rest have also been important additions to her routine, she says. “Even if you don’t feel like exercising, try it. I do a 30-minute regime five times a week. I also try to get more sleep, including an afternoon nap.”
McCarthy adds that her faith, humor and the support of others have been crucial. Her fellow Well of Mercy foundress, Sister Donna Marie Vaillancourt, has been a “great caretaker” for McCarthy, helping her maintain a positive approach.
“For your well-being, the more laughter and humor you can inject into the situation the better,” she says. “I didn’t laugh at first, but I can laugh now.
“I’m going to heal. All the support systems are in place — physical, emotional and spiritual — and prayer has been a very powerful component. I feel lifted up. I don’t feel like I’m doing any work. That’s really helped me tremendously.” Again, Dr. Greenfield says care is an individual matter, with the goal of putting patients more in control of their own health. Even with patients whose cases might be considered terminal, he says there are ways to make things better.
“There’s always something that can be done,” Dr. Green – field says. “When you take care of people facing their final path, they need to be made comfortable. We work closely with hospice. They’re just angels working on this planet.” Although Dr. Greenfield sees some patients on a consultant basis, he doesn’t offer primary care. He spends much of his time traveling and telling anyone who will listen that the current health care system needs to be changed and that integrative medicine is part of the solution.
“More and more cancer centers are using complementary therapies,” he says. “Why? They’re seeing more research suggesting that this approach can be safe and effective. We’re listening to our patients, and they’re saying that working with a holistic practitioner helps. This isn’t a person telling them not to have chemo or telling them to go to Tijuana. It’s someone saying, ‘Have the conventional medical care, but do this, too.’” _______________________________________________________________________
The list of complementary medical approaches to treat cancer grows as researchers, practitioners and those in pain find methods that bring relief. For example, consider the benefits of human touch.
Deborah Larrimore, RN, BSN, LMBT, CHTP/I, has spent 15 years in critical care nursing and another four years as a hospice nurse, but the majority of her experience falls in the integrative medicine area through a program called Healing Touch, which uses specific hand movements and therapeutic touch to promote healing. She practices and teaches the Healing Touch International curriculum across the United States and around the world. Healing Touch is recognized by the National Institutes of Health.
Larrimore says she has seen it work repeatedly in reducing pain, anxiety and nausea. According to Larrimore, most people who receive Healing Touch report that it has a calming effect and creates a greater sense of well-being despite the fact that they may not be “well.”
“Healing Touch works with the energy and natural healing process of the body through simple touch or non-touch,” she says. “The energy of the human hand can be measured by frequency and vibration. Using my hands gently on or very close to the body can affect healing, pain levels, nausea and anxiety.”
Larrimore realizes some people remain skeptical, but she says “when you offer an intention of unconditional love through your hands, the art of healing works.”
“My goal is to teach people, period,” Larrimore says. “I can show you simple yet effective ways to use your hands within an hour. All you have to do is be a human being who cares.”
Sister Brigid McCarthy’s experience with cancer and Healing Touch is one example of its effectiveness.
Larrimore says that McCarthy had already studied the Healing Touch method, which later became beneficial when she was diagnosed with cancer herself. “It has reduced her pain, lessened the side effects of nausea and helped her sleep,” Larrimore reports. “Those are the measurable things, and on an emotional level it has decreased her anxiety.
“Apart from physical healing, people say, ‘You’ve touched my spirit.’ So I know we touch the physical, the emotional and the spiritual,” says Larrimore.