CARE & SUPPORT HELPS PATIENTS LIVE FULLY
Support And Self Care
By Elayne Smith Lowe During her mother’s cancer journey, Jennifer Moulton saw firsthand the effects of self-care, a positive mindset, and a supportive community. “We all think her positivity kept her alive longer,” Moulton said. Moulton’s mom, Margaret Trujillo, battled breast cancer for 15 years before her death in August of 2020. She was 61. Despite her long fight with cancer, Trujillo never gave up the things she loved—especially teaching Zumba. Moulton said she thinks Zumba extended her mom’s life in a lot of ways, though people have told her Trujillo seemed to gain more life once Moulton moved in with her after the cancer spread. The support Trujillo found from her daughter, from teaching Zumba, and from surrounding herself with people who encouraged her helped Trujillo continue day to day, Moulton said. “I always just cheered her on, even though I knew she probably shouldn’t be doing something or overdoing it,” she said. “I never told her that or made her feel like she shouldn’t have the same life as everyone else.” As cancer changes people’s lives, giving that type of empowerment and emotional support—especially from oneself—can make a difference for cancer patients. “When people feel they’re losing their sense of control, it’s best to empower them and support them and give them more control rather than taking that away,” said Karen Gano, the oncology social worker at Christus St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center in Santa Fe. Gano said while the physical cancer treatment is paramount, so is the emotional and spiritual side. “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” Gano said. “If we don’t provide ourselves with some respite and self-care, how can we keep going?” Self-care doesn’t have to be anything grand, Gano said. It can be as simple as going to bed early or doing some chair yoga—or maybe even Zumba—for exercise. While many programs have shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said it’s important to focus on activities that are still possible, spark joy and bring positivity. “We all may not be able to do the things we want to do this year,” Gano said. “Flexibility is key.” Part of that flexibility is finding virtual ways to still connect with people who can help provide emotional support, Gano said. The Cancer Foundation of New Mexico has continued offering several sup port groups for cancer patients and caregivers through online groups instead of in-person. Janet Smith, a palliative care nurse and leader for the cancer patient support group, said the change enabled more patients to attend since they can connect from home. Support groups offer a safe space to talk with others going through the same experience, Smith said. People ask questions about treatment, offer advice on diets, and share their grief as well as their celebrations. She said it’s really a community where people can hear not just how people are surviving but thriving. “It’s a way people can get together and, you know, they can vent,” Smith said. “People who feel isolated and fearful don’t do as well as people who are connected.” Just as cancer patients need self-care, so do their caregivers. Ronnie Levine, a licensed marriage and family therapist, leads the Cancer Foundation of New Mexico’s caregiver support group. Levine said her group is a place caregivers can voice things they may not be able to voice anywhere else. “Sometimes they need support whether they know it or not,” Levine said. “There’s pandemic fatigue on top of caregiver fatigue on top of grief fatigue.” Levine said this compilation of loss and changes in routine that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic can lead to burnout, so it’s vital for caregivers to consider what can bring joy to their loved one and to themselves. “Self-care is an important part of being a caregiver or anyone in the life of a cancer patient,” Levine said. For Moulton, it was important to look at things one day at a time with her mom. Then, when grieving, she adopted the mantra for herself, celebrating the small victories even if they were as mundane as getting out of bed. Now, she advises others to do the same. “Every day you survive is winning,” Moulton said. “Don’t ever think of cancer as something that makes you feel like less of a person. Like anything else, it should be accepted and then you take it on and you fight it.” Oncology Social Worker Karen Gano’s suggestions for ways to foster self-care: • Ensure you’re taking care of the basics: sleep, diet and exercise. • Think of what has brought you joy in the past and devote time to incorporate it into your routine. For example: reading, puzzling, hiking. • Caregivers, ask patients what they miss or what would bring them joy, such as takeout from their favorite restaurant. • Bring comfort to them, whether via food, video calls, or written cards. • Explore who on the cancer patient’s interdisciplinary care team can provide aid in different areas to alleviate burdens. • Accept personal limitations and have honest conversations. • Empower cancer patients and respect everyone’s right of self-determination.