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Stanford Medicine

Cancer, Mental Health

After the cancer is gone, the real work starts

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; the latest comes from New York’s Britta Aragon.

“You have cancer.”

For many, these three words feel like a death sentence. I was only 16 years old when I heard them.

I had Hodgkin’s disease, diagnosed after I found a strange lump on my neck. I went through surgery and chemo, and after about six months, I was pronounced to be in remission.

Cancer and I came to a fairly quick understanding – physically, at least. But as many survivors know, the disease’s emotional impact was much more difficult to manage.

I was bald, overweight, bloated. My skin had lost its radiance, and my peers felt sorry for me. That was the last thing I wanted.

My friends, family, and relatives wanted me to “move on,” but I was confused and had no one to talk to. I now know that survivors need support groups, counseling, and other types of therapy to manage their experiences, but I had none of that, so I turned to the only thing I could control – food.

For the next several years I would battle with an eating disorder without even really knowing why. While I tried to recover, cancer came back into my life – bigger and meaner than before.

In 1999, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was my hero and my best friend, so the news was a huge blow to me. Still, he was full of strength and optimism, so I was sure he would get through it, just like I did.

I was right. He beat the cancer four times. But the fifth time, it formed a tumor in his brain, and after an exhausting eight-year battle, it took my father’s life in 2007.

I had crying spells that seemed uncontrollable. I felt like I was in some other world between here and there, and not really present in my day-today life. And I was angry. Why should cancer have taken my father, when it didn’t take me?

Psychiatrists now know that many cancer survivors go through something similar to post-traumatic stress. I’d venture to say that many caregivers do, too. And while our medical professionals are trained to deal with the cancer, for a long time there have been few resources for dealing with its aftermath.

Fortunately today, cancer centers and hospitals are starting to put into place programs to help people cope. In the wake of my father’s death, the one thing that helped me was finding a way to help others with my experience.

I dove into creating a new blog that would provide needed information for survivors like me, and after a couple years, also wrote a book about the experiences my father and I went through. Working on these projects not only helped me make meaning out of the challenges I had faced, but helped me to build a new, healthy life for myself. Today, I eat a healthy diet that nourishes me from the inside out, and I have a spiritual practice that keeps me grounded. My work fills me with joy and a sense of purpose. I love interacting with a community of people who experienced the same things I did, and I’m always looking for new opportunities to expand the knowledge I’ve gained.

Cancer changes us – there’s no doubt about that. It’s up to us to decide who we will become.

To honor her father’s legacy, safe cosmetics expert, author and entrepreneur Britta Aragon created the Cinco Vidas blog, wrote a book to help the newly diagnosed called When Cancer Hits, and created CV Skinlabs, a safe skin care line for those with sensitive and medically treated skin.

4 Responses to “ After the cancer is gone, the real work starts ”

  1. Alan Kaye Says:

    It is fantastic that Stanford University has partnered with the Health Social Media site, INSPIRE, to help patients battle issues related to CANCER.
    Cnacer patients fighting Cancer and who have beat Cancer and their family members go to the Health Social media site, INSPIRE, to link up with other Cancer patients, family members and caregivers who are battling the same issues. At INSPIRE they can connect, share, exchange ideas and become active healthcare consumers in battling their own Cancers.

    Cancers like Cervical Cancer, along with the HPV component can be discussed on INSPIRE in a positive way that does not cause the stigma that has been around in the past with Cervical Cancer and other Virus-related Cancers (VRC’s), caused by a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI).

    Check American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) http://www.ashastd.org for more info on HPV & Cervical Cancer.

    And at INSPIRE, to further help Stanford Cancer patients and other cancer patients throughout the United States, INSPIRE has a section on Yoga and Meditation. The INSPIRE Yoga & Meditation section helps highlight how Cancer patients and others have used YOGA & Meditation as a way to bring calm & Balance to the Cancer battle through relaxing the nervous system, reducing anxiety, depression, insomnia and help battle issues related to pain management and chronic disease.

    Stanford is doing great work in helping their patients be proactive in battling their Cancer. Way to go!

  2. Carol Stevenson Says:

    I honestly don’t know where I would be mentally without Inspire (Ovarian cancer arm)….
    There is NO detection test for Ovarian Cancer and so it is most often overlooked and it’s symptoms attributed to something else so that by the time it’s found it’s near “late stage”.
    The women, men and caregiver’s of Inspire lift each other up mentally, soothe fears, give advice, lead others gently in the right direction to gyn/oncs and to treatment.
    From around the world voices of cancer pain share and eventually form helpful groups within their own cities, countries for a continuation of support- all “inspired” by Inspire!
    Knowing you are NOT alone goes a long way toward healing. No matter how much your family and friends say they understand, they really don’t. And then there are those friends and family you lose because They can’t cope and so we take more or our sadness to our “Teal Sisters” who DO understand.
    We are true Warriors in this disease and I have found strength through these strong women that I didn’t know existed. Truly Amazing. Thank you to Inspire and to all those new ‘sisters’!!!
    Carol Stevenson HeartsToYou on Inspire

  3. Nancy Polk Says:

    I’m excited to see teams working together to help all cancer patients. It would also be nice to have free websites where we can listen through our computers to relaxation tapes.

    Also, a request: Those like myself with Thyroid cancer have heard over and over from the uninformed, that TC is the good cancer. We hate that phrase. It diminishes our trials with surgery after surgery, drinking radioactive iodine, having to go without thyroid hormone for 3-4 wks at a time which temporarily changes all our physical and mental processes. We had an organ removed and work for 2-3 years to find our way back to normalcy JUST LIKE ALL OTHER CANCER PATIENTS. Our worst offenders are the medical community itself.
    Thanks for letting me praise and rave.

  4. Karen Rice Says:

    “An Awakening”

    When I was diagnosed with Breast cancer a few years back, I reacted like most who receive a cancer diagnose; first thing came to mind was a “death sentence”. However, I found out later that it was truly “an awakening” for me. I began questioning God, why would you do this to me? What had I done in life so bad to have this placed upon me? But instead of bemoaning my fate, I decided to look for the positive side of it. There has to be a reason for it all.

    I also realized that I was about to face a new beginning, new hope, do and see more with a whole new prospective on life. When I think of the “gift of life” that was given to me, I know that I will develop and gain strength from all my experiences. After going through all that I did during my breast cancer period, I was left with, what the MD’s called “Neuropatic Pain”; a severe nerve damage diagnose. The pain is usually with you all day; and it times worse then others. Later I was diagnosed with “Lymphedema”. Of course I just kept smiling and saying to myself, “Oh lucky me”. For a while, I wasn’t happy with the way I looked around my breast area after my first surgery, nor the pain I had to endure each day, but I decided to snap out of it. Even after being diagnosed with another cancer (colon) a few years later. Which totally took me by surprise. I had already had my time with cancer, I thought to myself. Why another one? I even make jokes at times, while crying inside asking, “what am I”, the cancer carrier? But even with the pain I have to endure through each diagnose, and all the struggles I’ve dealt with all my life, I still feel truly blessed. I think about the individuals that are no longer among us. I also realized that there will always be someone worse off than I am. I reminded myself, that I “still have my life” and who am I to complain.

    One day during one of my surgeries, I experienced something of a miracle and felt the compulsion to write it down. I turn that experience into a poem and I called it “Peace”. Writing had become therapy for me. I took that poem, along with many others I had composed during my breast cancer period and placed them into book form. I was blessed enough to have that book published and it’s titled “True Simple Poems of Life, Faith and Survival”. I later had another inspirational children’s book published and I’m working on my third. I’m hoping that anyone who has the opportunity to read my poems, get out of them, what I placed in all of them. My poems are from the heart, as real as any could ever be. With the words and phrases of each poem of statement, I wish to make a positive impact on someone who’s ill or otherwise, where they could develop the strength to embrace life in a whole new way. I never anticipated becoming a writer, I just became one. I truly believe when you survive a horrific tragedy or a horrible disease as cancer, it’s for a reason, “you have a purpose” and I want to live to find find out exactly what that is for me.

    That’s what I’m all about now, inspiration. I would have never become a writer, producing inspirational poems and stories, if I had not gone through all that I did. I’m a true example that you can survive cancer not once, but twice, providing you catch it in time, have faith and allow that faith to direct your path. I’ve not saying all will be easy, but you must believe.

    Written by, Karen Rice
    x2 Cancer Survivor/Author
    Houston, Texas

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