Cancer: making time for recovery post-treatment
Isn’t it about time we challenged and moved away from the tyranny of speed, when it comes to healing and recovery?
I’ve long asked myself this question, both in relation to working psychologically with individuals going through cancer, and also during my own recovery from treatment for breast cancer. I find myself frequently pondering on the somewhat unhelpful phrases such as ‘get well soon’ and, ‘wishing you a speedy recovery’, which are so dominant in our culture. Surely it would be more helpful, and forgiving, to say, ‘take your time’, and ‘I wish you a slow, gentle recovery’?
In a profoundly wise, and thought-provoking book, newly published, and entitled Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence, Gavin Francis, the GP and author, explores how and why we get better, suggesting that when it comes to illness, “sometimes the end is just the beginning”. I like this quote, which so helpfully suggests that the long journey back to health (however we may define that) can be far more complex and nuanced than we imagine.
In exploring this notion of ‘the end is just the beginning’, Francis describes the many different forms recovery can take, whilst also revealing how little time is made for it. Tellingly, he points to the gaping absence of any reference to the process of recovery, or convalescence, during his 13 years of medical training.
So, this process of recovery takes time, and in many ways is ‘counterculture’ to our society’s current emphasis on celebrating speed within recovery; whether that is championing running a marathon after treatment for cancer, or at its most extreme, the celebration of a woman returning to work the day after she has given birth. To come directly to the present time, we are finally witnessing a questioning of this ‘speedy recovery’ norm, in relation to recovery after Covid, and the massive toll on the lives of those experiencing Long Covid.
I would like to suggest that what we are seeing in relation to recovery from Covid is what we already knew to be the case, in relation to life after cancer. Given that ‘92% of our cancer community told us that they find life after cancer harder than cancer treatment’, surely this demands that we start to both focus, and invest more, in the processes of recovery?
And then there is the nuance and complexity in recovery; different things work for different people, and it is important to carefully and thoughtfully tailor the processes of recovery to each individual, rather than mass-produce recovery, which is what we can see developing in the outpatient setting of many hospitals. For many years now, I have been exploring this idea of tailoring recovery to the specific needs of the individual post-treatment. After months, sometimes years of treatment, patients report feeling lost, in limbo, in a kind of no man’s land, with no map to help guide them on their way. Suddenly ejected from the rollercoaster of diagnosis and treatment they emerge dazed and confused.
In 2017, together with colleagues, I devised and facilitated a post-treatment programme entitled Moving On, for our patients. We offered them psycho-education, support and the chance to share experiences. We also integrated different activities and modalities, rather like tasters, into the post-treatment sessions. These included the obvious Yoga, Mindfulness and Meditation, Dancing, Gardening, and Journaling, as well as the more unusual experience of attending a Choir, and Laughter Yoga! We were heartened by the positive responses we received.
I think that all of this points to the proliferation of non-medical approaches we have been seeing in relation to recovery, which I for one, have been espousing for years, now neatly termed ‘social prescribing’, and all the rage currently in the NHS. I benefitted hugely from my own self-administered dose of social prescribing during my recovery. I discovered Qi Gong and the Emotional Freedom Technique called Tapping, (often referred to as psychological acupressure), and most recently have joined a wonderful dance community for women affected by cancer, entitled Move Dance Feel with transformative benefits.
I have little doubt that these activities were instrumental in allowing me to recover and heal, and to use Gavin Francis’ words, to grow in strength and be able to stand firmly on my own two feet, in both the physiological and metaphorical sense of the word.
Recovery is a process, not an end point; a truth, which those of us who have been through cancer and other life-threatening illnesses recognize only too well. On the day that treatment finally ends, and when family and friends, although well-meaning, want to celebrate and put all that we (and they!) have been through behind us, we can too easily feel dismissed and experience that we are somehow disappointing them. We need time, space and the ability to slowly and gradually explore the very individualised ingredients, or ‘threads’ which make up our own personal recovery. To my mind these bear much in common with the same ‘threads, as Francis calls them, as he describes that, ‘even when I stitch a patient’s wound, the suture material itself does not knit the tissues – the thread is simply a trellis to guide the body in its own work of healing’.
I couldn’t put it more beautifully.
Adline Warwick Thompson, 20 February 2022