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Cancer therapy groups bring ‘meaning to life’

Cancer patients at Duke can now draw comfort from two new meditative support groups.

The Duke Cancer Patient Support Program introduced two support programs for cancer patients and their families, which are based in methods from integrative medicine. The programs serve to complement the DCPSP’s existing nine support groups, meditative garden and self-image shop with turbans and wigs offered free of charge. The new support groups cater to the emotional traumas experienced by cancer patients who undergo physical treatments.

“These therapies help bring meaning to their life,” said Cheyenne Corbett, director of the DCPSP.

Alternate therapies can help patients overcome the emotional affects of cancer, said Ben Weast, licensed professional counselor and a nationally certified counselor.

“When I look at counseling, what I am trying to do is assist a person in adjusting to what is going on in their life at that time in regard to the cancer,” Weast said. “When you are talking about adjustment that involves your mind [and] how you are thinking about cancer and feeling about cancer can be related to how much pain you’re in.”

The art therapy group offers a nonverbal way for patients to express their feelings. The group, which consists of eight to 10 members, does not require any prior art experience and meets twice per month.

Geoffrey Vaughn, a licensed art therapist who facilitates the art therapy group, noted that patients work with a variety of mediums—such as clay, paint and photography, among others—to express their feelings about their treatment.

“Art therapy, quite simply, is a form of psychotherapy using art media to express feelings instead of using words to express feelings,” said Vaughn, who is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It’s an alternative to getting people in a support group and making them talk.”

Currently, patients are making art journals, which are visual journals about their cancer experience, he added. Patients create images based on an emotional theme, such as hope or fear, to place into their journals.

“Duke oncology as an entity recognizes that there is more to treating cancer than seeing a doctor and getting chemotherapy and radiation,” Vaughn said. “We are an adjunctive system, a holistic approach to cancer treatment.”

Whereas doctors work to slow and manage the growth of cancer, psychotherapists handle the emotional fallouts that come from having cancer and going through cancer treatment, he said. The medical team and therapists in the program work in tandem with each other to assist each patient.

The second support group, titled Mind-Body Approaches to Coping with Cancer, uses a combination of physical and mental techniques to help patients deal emotionally.

Mind-body awareness therapy relates to how a person’s thoughts affect the physical condition of their body, said Tracy Berger, licensed marriage and family therapist and a facilitator for the mind-body group.

“Everybody’s mind worries about the future,” Berger said. “With cancer on top of it, [the mind] goes into overdrive.”

In each session, patients begin by talking about why they want to learn a new strategy for coping with cancer. They then discuss the seven essential attitudes for mindfulness that are laid out in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s novel, “Full Catastrophe Living.” The session concludes with a meditation session.

“It helps you to be aware of what is going on in your body [and] helps calm your mind,” Berger said.

Berger added that this type of therapy helps patients outside of the group. He said one patient noted that while she was at a doctor’s appointment, she focused on her breathing rather than on the future. Her blood pressure then went down 20 points.

Counselors determine which type of counseling a patient needs by learning about the aspect of his life that affects his mental health the most, Weast said. If cancer has caused stress on a particular relationship, talking about these issues with the patient in couple or family counseling can help everyone’s mental state, he added.

A key aspect of the therapy is making a patient’s issues more manageable by breaking down his concerns.

“If you look at [cancer] like this one big ball, you can feel like you’re drowning,” he said. “Helping someone break all of that down into chunks helps them manage it.”

The DCPSP relies on donations and volunteer services to provide the support patients need to get through their cancer. More than 100 people volunteer in the DCPSP.

“We want to make sure that if people need assistance that we don’t have the barriers that would typically prevent them from accessing these services,” Corbett said.

Adam Perlman, the executive director of Duke Integrative Medicine, said only using conventional medicine will not completely improve a patient’s health, he added.

Integrative medicine is an attempt to combine the best of conventional medicine with mind-body awareness, Perlman said. Duke Integrative Medicine uses alternative therapies, such as massage therapy and acupuncture, to help patients cope with the physical and emotional side effects of medical treatment.

Integrative medicine should not be used in lieu of conventional medicine, he said. Rather, it should help patients cope with the physical and emotional side effects of their treatment. He added that patients who undergo chemotherapy respond very well to acupuncture—and focusing on nutrition and stress management can also help maintain a good quality of life and manage pain.

“We have come to recognize that you can’t separate the body from the mind,” Perlman said. “To optimize yourself, you have to focus on both.”


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