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Living Well

Sorting Through the Puzzle of Emotions, Part 2

Last updated: May 01, 2016

This is the second article in a two-part series chronicling the emotional journey of a cancer diagnosis.  To read the first story, click here

Learning How to Manage Your Emotions 

When Lyza Lyon was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, the team at Summit Medical Group’s Breast Care Center cared for more than her physical health—they also took care of her mental health. In addition to coordinating her medical care, they helped the 43 year-old find a therapist, nutritionist, and support group. Her breast nurse navigator also suggested several community services including a meal program, a retreat for breast cancer survivors, and a non-profit camp for children whose parents have cancer.

“My breast surgeon, Jerrold Lozner, MD, really has a conversation with you about everything that is going on in your life and how you are balancing your health as much as he focuses on the physical,” explains Ms. Lyon. “Because they listened, I was able to take advantage of many programs that I would otherwise not have known about. Summit Medical Group feels like a family in this regard.” 

When patients like Ms. Lyon are diagnosed with cancer they experience a range of emotions including denial, worry, fear, grief, sadness, and anger. In fact, studies show that nearly a third of patients with cancer meet the criteria for a mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression; and many more suffer from certain symptoms of these illnesses. As a result, Summit Medical Group has three Behavioral Health Centers that help patients with any chronic illness manage their experience from diagnosis to treatment and eventually survivorship. Located at the Berkeley Heights, Springfield, and Livingston locations, therapists are available for individual counseling and three on-site support groups are offered for breast cancer patients. 

“Support is defined differently by each individual patient,” says Elizabeth Nikol, MA, MSW, LCSW, ACT, Senior Integrated Behavioral Health Clinician at Summit Medical Group who has counseled hundreds of patients with cancer. “While some patients find comfort in anonymous activities like journaling or online cancer groups, others benefit from in-person meetings such as local support groups, walkathons, or therapy. Our physicians, nurses, and counselors have a wealth of resources for patients. If we do not have a particular service or support group, we will find it for you.” 

One example of these resources is the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in North Jersey. On May 1st, providers and patients from Summit Medical Group, will team together at the event to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research. To sign up for the team, click here.

“The walk is inspirational,” says Carol Boyer, RN, APN-C, AOCNS, CN-BP, Clinical Program Manager and Certified Breast Nurse Navigator who leads a team of Nurse Navigators at the Summit Medical Group Breast Care Center. “When women are surrounded by survivors they feel like they are not alone. There is comfort in knowing other people are fighting along with them.” 

Therapy Helps Patients Manage Stress and Sadness 

Ms. Nikol, who is a cancer survivor herself, has counseled hundreds of patients struggling to deal with their diagnosis. In behavioral therapy, she teaches patients to stay in the present and prevent their thoughts from wandering to hypothetical situations, known as mindfulness training. This technique teaches patients how to refocus their attention when they feel overwhelmed. 

Behavioral therapy was life-changing for Ms. Lyon because it gave her the survival tools she needed to live with cancer. “Learning how to apply mindfulness—related to my health, relationship, and being a mother, helped me stay in the moment,” she explains. “I found great peace in meditation and self-soothing. If I did allow my inner voice to play out a what-if storyline, I reminded myself to focus on the moment and what was actually happening.”

Another technique Ms. Nikol’s refers to as “worry time” trains the brain to stop having obsessive thoughts by postponing the worry until a specified time. “Instead of thinking all day long that you are not going to be at your daughter’s wedding or return to the job you love, pick 10 minutes each day to write down everything you are worried about and then close the book,” she explains. “If worries pop into your head throughout the day keep reminding yourself over and over again to wait for your worry time the next day.” 

Therapy can be very beneficial for allowing patients to release these intense feelings of sadness. “Patients need an outlet to vent and discuss how unfair cancer is,” says Ms. Nikol. “Our job is to tell them there is no answer for why this happened to them, and then make a plan for what we are going to do now.”

Finding Comfort and Acceptance in Support Groups 

Support groups can also be very beneficial for patients. Currently, Summit Medical Group offers two breast cancer support groups in Berkeley Heights, one for patients in the first year of diagnosis, and one for patients who have had cancer for over a year. A general support group for all breast cancer patients is also offered in Florham Park. Click here to browse and register for our support groups.

“Newly-diagnosed women can greatly benefit from seeing other people who are surviving and looking well,” says Ms. Boyer. “Having that space to cry and be frightened can help hold a patient up because they may not feel like they are able to break down in front of their family members or young children.” 

Carrie Decker, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, joined the support group after her treatment was completed. “The doctors are great at explaining everything, but having that personal connection and information allows everyone to learn from each other,” she says. 

Stress management techniques, which Ms. Nikol says can be anything that helps your mood change, are also important. This may include classic techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation, or fun activities like watching a TV show or scrapbooking. She encourages patients to make a list of activities that make them feel happy and make time for at least one every day.  

Ms. Lyon, for example, found great relief in yoga. Towards the end of her treatment she participated in a restorative healing yoga session. Halfway into the lesson the teacher covered her in a blanket—a cocoon where she was safe—and guided her to “let go” as it was now time to turn into a butterfly. 

“I had my second hardest cry and then I just let go of all of the anger I felt and how my body had let me down. It was over. I turned into a butterfly,” she describes. “I survived.”