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The great escape

Author: Bridget McCrea

Christinea Fenstermacher loves swimming with dolphins and enjoys spending time on the beach and frolicking in the warm saltwater. A resident of Clayton, North Carolina, Christinea often calls on her memories of time spent surrounded by sand and sun when the effects of colon cancer treatment become challenging.

“I’ve been on a lot of ocean cruises, and I have a lot of great memories of these trips and the activities I was involved in while traveling,” says Christinea, who lifts her own spirits not only through self-reflection but also by talking to other people about their cruises and travels. “It keeps my mind off of my issues and really helps me cope.”

To further solidify her “escape” strategy, Christinea spends time creating scrapbooks, some of which she started assembling before she was diagnosed. Her scrapbooking hobby serves several purposes: she can gather her experiences into a single source, share them with others in an attractive format, and also enjoy the books herself.

“I didn’t want my life’s story left as a stack of photos in a box somewhere,” says Christinea, who so far has created a scrapbook for her wedding and several others for the various trips, cruises, and excursions she’s taken. “I have a long way to go when it comes to getting those memories into albums, but I’m working on it a little bit at a time.” Making handmade greeting cards is another hobby that has carried Christinea through cancer treatment. Using beautiful paper, stamps, chalk, and colored pencils, her creations include window box designs adorned with velum and 3D greetings with butterfly patterns punched out of them. “I really enjoy making the cards and seeing the thrill and the joy in people’s eyes when they receive them,” says Christinea. “It’s extremely therapeutic for me.”

Stress reduction techniques

Whether they are immersed in a favorite hobby, watching a great movie, enjoying time with friends and family, or spending time in nature, cancer patients are finding creative ways to escape the stress of their diagnosis and enjoy their lives. The activities not only provide relief from the rigors of treatment but also help the patients get some control back during a time when gaining even a slight edge against cancer can seem challenging.

“When someone is diagnosed, a good amount of control is suddenly lost,” says Katherine Puckett, PhD, MS, MSW, LCSW, national director of mind-body medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America®. To help assuage those feelings of helplessness, Dr. Puckett invites patients to take deliberate steps in the direction of personal empowerment. That could mean taking part in activities that were of interest before the cancer was diagnosed or getting involved in something new.

“When people voluntarily choose enjoyable activities, they will by nature feel less stressed and more relaxed,” says Dr. Puckett. “It’s quite empowering and goes a long way in helping improve the quality of life.”

Exactly which activities are best is highly subjective and depends on the individual. Energy levels also come into play, particularly during treatment. “Someone who has loved fishing with their kids in the past may not have the stamina to do that right now,” says Dr. Puckett. “They can discover alternatives that are less demanding physically but that still allow them to enjoy spending time together, perhaps reading, doing crafts, or listening to music with their children.”

The constant gardener

Terry Gratkowski was an avid gardener for 20 years before she was diagnosed with cancer—a development that has not taken away her love of digging in the dirt. “Gardening has sustained me for years and years as a way of dealing with my stressful career,” says Terry, who is now retired and lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. “I had to put it on hold for a few months after my operation, but planting new life and watching it grow has been a great escape for me.”

Terry also enjoys physical exercise, and she walks about three miles a day—a goal that seemed out of reach last year when her health stood in the way of her plans to participate in a three-day cancer walk. “I went through a period of complete exhaustion,” she recalls, “but once I got my energy back, I slowly got back to walking regularly.”

The accomplishment associated with putting in more than 20 miles a week helps carry Terry through the times when cancer seems determined to pull her down. “It doesn’t matter how fast or slow I do those miles; I just focus on getting them done,” she says. “It’s one of the most important parts of my day, and it really helps me deal with the cancer in a positive, healthy way.” As Dr. Puckett pointed out, such activities also give patients like Terry control during a time when they may feel powerless against the disease that’s taken over their lives. “When I was diagnosed, I was 60 years old and about to retire; it was a cruel twist of fate,” Terry says. “But I’m not going to let this defeat me. By keeping up with my gardening and regular physical activity, I’ve been able to get myself to a new normal.”

Becoming a “visionary”

Peter Washburn of Little Compton, Rhode Island, knows a thing or two about relaxation—something that this typical type A personality couldn’t say just a few years ago. “I was fast paced as a person,” says Peter, who, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, turned to techniques like reiki (a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing), meditation, guided imagery (a technique that focuses and directs the imagination), and acupuncture.

“My doctors told me that I needed to slow down and start to feel things,” says Peter. “It didn’t happen all at once. There were a lot of half-hour sessions to help me get there.” Using CDs that walked him through the guided-imagery practice, Peter was able to channel his mind to visualize the healing process. He learned the basics of meditation and reiki during the same week and began practicing both at home.

Peter practices his mind-body relaxation techniques three to four times a day, usually while looking at natural settings like the ocean and trees that lie just on the other side of his home’s sliding glass doors. His other escape mechanisms include a rigorous stretching program that’s focused on different quadrants of the body. “I don’t stretch in front of the television anymore,” says Peter. “I do intensive stretching—combined with deep breathing and meditation—to calm my body down and get it into a healing mode.”

Dr. Puckett says the fact that the patients interviewed for this article are taking time for themselves is important in a society where doing so is often viewed negatively: “Some patients feel guilty about this because they’ve never learned how to take time for themselves. Now is the time to give yourself permission to do this and to partake of activities that contribute to your physical and mental well-being.”

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