Oncologists are referring patients for massage, reflexology and yoga, writes Sylvia Thompson.
The development of cancer support centres close to oncology units yet independent of them was commended in the new Cancer Control Strategy document, published last week.
These centres can become a home from home for people recently diagnosed with cancer, others who are facing complex treatment options and even those at the end of their treatment who are searching for a way forward.
The Arc Cancer Support Centre in Eccles Street, Dublin, which opened in 1993, was a forerunner of the many cancer support centres that have since developed in Dublin and various other cities and larger towns around the country.
The two-year-old Lios Aoibhinn cancer support centre near St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin is another positive example of the holistic approach to cancer care that is growing in this country.
Anne Hayes, director of services at Lios Aoibhinn, says: "People get an awful lot of information in a hospital. We translate that information for them and reinforce how they can live with it."
And although information about conventional treatments and formal and informal support groups are crucial elements of what works for people in cancer support centres, the availability of free complementary therapies is what gives them that extra level of care and support which enables them to face their fears and integrate the experience of cancer into their lives.
Dr David Fennelly, consultant oncologist at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin and the Beacon Hospital in Sandyford, has been involved in the establishment of cancer support centres at both hospitals.
"Complementary therapies should be part of any cancer care plan and therapies such as reiki, massage and aromatherapy provide a non-invasive form of relaxation, great comfort and improved quality of life for people during their treatment," he says.
Fennelly also believes the use of the term "complementary" is the key as these therapies will not have a negative effect on conventional cancer treatments. He is opposed to treatments which don't accept conventional treatments.
"Cancer is a very emotive area and patients can be very vulnerable. I don't accept alternative approaches which avoid what has been proven to be the best current treatments," he says.
The type of complementary therapies offered by cancer support centres varies. For example, the Arc cancer support centre in Dublin has drop-in yoga, relaxation and t'ai chi classes. Clients are also offered six sessions of reflexology, following an assessment by an oncology nurse and written permission from their oncologist.
At Lios Aoibhinn, clients can attend relaxation and visualisation classes, yoga classes and various touch therapies. At the Cuisle Centre in Portlaoise, Co Laois, the range of therapies includes reiki, yoga, Indian head massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, acupuncture and manual lymphatic drainage.
The Cuisle centre is managed by an oncology nurse and is linked to the oncology unit at Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise.
Most cancer support centres are run voluntarily with some funding from the Irish Cancer Society and, in some cases, from the Health Service Executive.
Cecelia Keenan is an oncology nurse and complementary therapist who gives massage, reiki and reflexology to patients at Lios Aoibhinn. She is keen to dispel the widely held myth that massage is unsuitable for cancer patients. "The idea that cancer cells multiply when massage is applied is a myth," she says. "But, it's important to realise that the type of massage I use is very different from sports massage or deep tissue massage. It's more of a holding massage which can release tension and anxiety and transform people's fears. It's very powerful," she says.
Some 50-60 per cent of people who avail of the services at Lios Aoibhinn opt for massage therapy.
John Westman (55) attended reflexology sessions at Arc, following treatment for prostate cancer. "I found it helpful emotionally after treatment. It restored my energy and gave me a general feeling of wellbeing," he says.
Mary Colleary (65) also used the services at Arc. She says the beautiful, relaxing mood in the building itself was beneficial. The Georgian building which houses Arc cancer support centre was intentionally restored using non-toxic paints, natural floor covering and soft lighting. "The relaxation and visualisation classes brought me into myself and out of myself. They had a life-giving quality," she says.
Mary Scarff is a psychotherapist who runs relaxation and visualisation classes at both Lios Aoibhinn and Arc cancer support centre. "The biggest element in my work is to provide a safe place for people to be in to experience emotions of fear and sadness and discharge them rather than suppress them. The visualisation brings people into a space in which they can connect with their own stillness and ability to heal," she says.
The fear of cancer recurring is by far the biggest fear which those with cancer must face. "This is the biggest challenge for people and learning how to manage that fear is the key," says Scarff.
Facing fears and improving quality of life during and after cancer treatment will become more important as the incidence of cancer continues to rise in this country.
Acknowledging the value of cancer support centres, the new Cancer Control Strategy stated that a code of practice should be developed for such centres and their development encouraged so that more patients can benefit from their services. It is a positive step forward for the integrated cancer care model in Ireland which is fast becoming the norm in the US and other countries around the world.
Contact details of cancer support centres are available from the Irish Cancer Society, 43/45 Northumberland Road, Dublin or by calling the National Cancer Helpline Freefone 1800 200 700
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