Caring for the Caregivers
Second Breast Cancer Survivors’ Retreat at the Aspen Institute
One survivor’s reflections about the Breast Cancer Retreat
Preparing to depart for the survivors’ retreat in Queenstown, I stopped for an errand and ran into friends having a lively conversation about the stressful lives of wives and mothers. “I wish someone would take care of me,” lamented one, and her sentiment was echoed by the other women in the group. I realized at that moment that for many women, their first adult experience of comprehensive, loving care comes hand-in-hand with the devastating diagnosis of breast cancer. From diagnosis to treatment to the rigorous schedule of follow-up appointments, I have been encouraged by the kind, compassionate and gently delivered care of the health professionals who make up my team. This retreat is another example of the quality of programs at AAMC’s Breast Center that treat the whole patient.
As a two-year survivor, my goals in attending the retreat were to keep current with information that I could use in volunteering for Survivors Offering Support (a mentorship program that pairs newly diagnosed women with survivors) and to spend time with friends I had made along the recovery journey. But, of course, I left with much more. Studies have shown that participation in survivor groups speeds recovery, boosts the immune system and increases longevity. Best of all, I took away memories of much laughter with friends, enthusiasm for new hobbies and pastimes, and hope for the future.
Reflecting on the success of this year’s retreat and thankful for renewal and new friendships, I recalled what a nurse told me as I wrestled with this demon diagnosis of cancer. She said I might find rich and unexpected blessings. As strange as it may seem, there have been many positive aspects of the struggle. By reaching deep to hone courage and coping strategies, I, as have many women, emerged from the experience with a new appreciation of each day, indeed of each moment. I have learned that by facing death, one can choose life and choose to make it rich by reordering priorities, daring to pursue dreams, cherishing relationships more dearly, and abandoning bad situations.
I left the retreat feeling pampered, refreshed and encouraged, thankful for this precious time spent with other women who share memories of the pain, fears, and joys that I have experienced. I feel truly blessed by AAMC’s program of compassionate care and by the devotion of the healthcare professionals who give new life to their patients.
Breast cancer patients can face a host of lingering problems aside from treatment. That’s why AAMC, supported by a grant from Stepping Out for Breast Cancer, hosted the Second Annual Breast Cancer Survivors’ Retreat at the Aspen Wye River Institute in mid-October to address such needs as adjusting self-image and relationships, building a positive outlook, re-engaging in fun and exciting activities, rebuilding health and fitness, and engaging in meaningful and fulfilling social service.
Lillian Shockney, a nurse and longtime survivor who could earn her living as a stand-up comic, shared stories with such overwhelming humor and wisdom that these survivors laughed until they cried. Her zest and honesty encouraged many women to open up with their own stories as the weekend progressed—a vital aspect of recovery.
The two-day retreat was held October 15-16 at The Houghton House at Aspen Wye River Institute, an elegant Williamsburg-style manor that has hosted high-level meetings of international leaders, and boasts pristine fields of grazing cattle and formal gardens on the banks of the Wye River. It provided the perfect soul-soothing setting for improving coping skills and bolstering the relationships women need to move forward in life as cancer survivors. The next event will be held October 15-16, 2005. For information call 443-481-5360.
The conference sessions, presented by many highly respected AAMCprofessionals, included presentations on the latest advances in cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment and research. Attendees were encouraged by learning that monies devoted to cancer research are producing exciting results which may, in the future, spare many women and men from having to deal with this disease.
A discussion of faith in aiding the recovery process tuned women into their inner strength and help show them how to tap into that strength using guided imagery and meditation. Compassion and irresistible humor characterized talks on the uncomfortable and difficult topics of pain management and sexuality issues. Smiles of relief on faces around the room signaled what comfort there was in knowing that there are solutions to these nagging problems.
Members of several groups extended invitations to seek new interests and to engage in group support and service activities like Survivors Offering Support, the Pink Cottage and Casting for Recovery.
During breakout sessions, women enjoyed yoga or Tai Chi, massages, journaling, learning about cancer-fighting nutrition or talking in groups. At mealtime, friendships formed and stories were shared. Many women shared that the care and compassion they received at AAMC was their first experience ever of being intensely, sincerely taken care of. Others told of the heartbreak of trying to look after young children while suffering the effects of chemotherapy. Stories of unsupportive employers and loss of jobs due to illness were common and focused awareness of the need to heighten understanding in the workplace and reform law.
Of course, women talked about the fear of recurrence and the sense of having lost confidence in enjoying a future. Through all the sharing, women offered knowledge, experience, encouragement, compassion and hope to their sisters in the club that no one wants to join.
Institute Attracts Director
Dr. Linda Ferris, who recently took the helm at Anne Arundel Medical Center’s Geaton and Joann DeCesaris Cancer Institute, is excited about the prospects that lie before her.
“The total resources available at AAMC to patients with cancer are phenomenal,” said Dr. Ferris, new executive director of the DeCesaris Institute. “I am extremely impressed with how engaged and caring the AAMC staff and physicians are. That, combined with our willingness to explore the newest treatments, the extent of our clinical trials and the technology we offer really sets us apart.”
That’;s high praise from someone with Dr. Ferris’ experience in the oncology field. In addition to her job as the executive director of the Harold Leever Regional Cancer Center joint venture with St. Mary’s and Waterbury hospitals in Waterbury, Conn. (in which the two hospitals partnered to build a state-of-the art outpatient cancer treatment facility) she is also chair of the Association of Cancer Executives Strategic Planning Committee and an author. “I love the field of oncology and building teams and programs,” she said.
The staff at the AAMC DeCesaris Institute is working on several initiatives, she said. The Institute is dedicated to introducing innovative radiation treatments, the latest being respiration technology that is synchronized with breathing and targets tumors. Another new treatment involves concentrated high-dose radiation that radically cuts treatment times for certain patients.
“Our goal is to focus individual treatment plans even more, to afford patients the opportunity to come here and see how special we are,” Dr. Ferris said. “In addition to giving direct care, we provide specialty nursing education, spiritual counseling, support groups, patient navigators, social workers, nutritionists, and clinical trials personnel to ensure that patients and their families get the best care available anywhere.”
Dr. Ferris obtained her B.A. in psychology from Wayne State University in Detroit, her M.A. in clinical psychology from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and her Ph.D. in organizational and educational psychology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her numerous awards include the American Cancer Society of Connecticut’s Angel of Hope Award and the National Lymphedema Network Inc.’s Lymphedema “D”Day Award (given for dedication to the treatment of lymphedema patients). She is also the coauthor of A Pocketful of Miracles: Thoughts, Advice, and Inspiration for the Ill, among other publications.
Finding a physician affiliated with the AAMC DeCesaris Cancer Institute is easy. Just call askAAMC at 443-481-4000.