“You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
-Stuart Scott, ESPY Awards, July 2015
A metaphor I often use when speaking with people dealing with the challenges of cancer treatment compares the treatment phase to a horse race. The goal is the finish line. The horse is running and running, doing their best. It’s all about the race and blinders block peripheral vision. The jockey and the crowd have a role helping the horse to cross the finish line. When the race is over the blinders are removed, the jockey gets off and the crowd dissipates. Sounds a little like the completion of treatment? Many people find that the time after treatment is just as challenging and sometimes more so however the crowds of support are not as available. As humans we often try to find meaning from our experiences. Some say that the psychological and emotional piece of processing the cancer experience is one of the most difficult aspects of cancer. For others the physical changes present huge hurtles, altering their sense of self and how to live fully. Most people who have received treatment for cancer do not start to process all they have been through until months after treatment and sometimes years. I know the time after treatment has many peaks and valleys and many feel unsupported and alone and even a little “crazy” trying to process this whole cancer thing!
My name is Elizabeth Sherwood and I have worked in the field of oncology for almost twenty years as an advanced practice mental health nurse and an adult nurse practitioner. I am also a certified Rosen Method practitioner trained in a special type of massage or bodywork. I am passionate about helping folks during treatment, after treatment and for those living with metastatic disease, between treatments. I was fortunate to work at a large National Cancer Institute hospital where I was involved in patient care, research, program development, patient and professional education and Integrative Oncology. I helped to develop many of the survivorship services. I left that position in 2015 to follow a dream. After a year of dreaming, doubting, learning, planning, learning some more and listening to my passions, I finally feel like I am ready. I want to start something new.
“You all do a good job of trying to treat, and trying to stop the cancer, but you really suck at helping people after treatment and between treatments”. A young, vibrant woman named Katherine spoke these words to me many years ago. Our conversations and relationship, and her passion for making a life touched by cancer better, despite physical challenges and living with terminal cancer, inspired my almost two decades in oncology. She challenged me to do more for patients as she herself advocated in front of boardrooms and her state legislature. She spoke out about what she needed. She voiced the challenges of figuring out life with cancer as a young adult. She wanted others to have the care that she thought would benefit her. She laughed often and reminded me of the need for humor and at times, irreverence.
I will always remember the rap song she wrote to sing to her oncologist about the side effects of irinotecan! She rocked the power of resilience and savoring what was precious in her life. Little did I know that I would go on to advocate, educate and provide a new kind of clinical care for survivors with Katherine as my muse.
Kicking Cancers’ Ass
I started at a large cancer center as a volunteer doing massage for patients and conducting a mindfulness meditation group for patients and caregivers. After a year I was encouraged to step into a professional role of counselor and I would venture to say early “nurse navigator”. I jumped in learning as much as I could about all kinds of cancers, cancer treatments and their impact, and providing counseling, education, stress reduction, support and resources to patients and their families. I feel fortunate to be a medical professional appreciative and knowledgeable of the benefits of western medical practices and integrative health practices. I returned to school and in 2004 completed a adult nurse practitioner program. With my new credentials I became the first survivorship nurse practitioner and coordinator at the University of North Carolina. I was fortunate to be part of a grant working with LIVESTRONG™ to improve clinics, programs and services for people during their treatment and after their treatment. I also worked diligently to establish the integrative oncology program including massage, acupuncture, nutrition, yoga, mindfulness, physical activity, support and education, as well as initiate a support group for young adults and partner with First Descents.
I am forever thankful to all my fellow medical professionals who answered my questions about specific aspects of specific cancers and specific treatments giving me a fuller idea of what patients and families experienced. They are on the front lines of beating cancer and researching how to do it better. I am also eternally grateful to all the patients and families that I have worked with over the years for the education and guidance they gave to me. My years of experience left me convinced that the medical system is challenged in providing care to the whole person. Life after cancer treatments often has many ups and downs and many unanswered concerns and struggles. I am passionate about improving the care people need for healing from cancer and the experience of cancer. I am passionate about doing what is possible to prevent cancer recurrence. I am passionate about helping people process and integrate all that has been experienced so that they may arrive at that “new normal” with a sense of authenticity and balance. I am passionate about helping to connect the dots of personal choices that lead to improved wellbeing and quality of life. Over the years my interest lead me to learn more about coping and problem solving solutions to side effects like chemo-brain, fatigue, lack of libido, body image concerns, weight concerns, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. I know without a doubt, as a medical professional, there is so much more that we could do to help. I see myself as an ambassador with the goal of utilizing the best of traditional oncology and integrative practices to benefit your health.
Savor: power to excite or interest; the quality that makes something interesting or enjoyable; to appreciate fully, enjoy or relish.
This is not to say that most medical professionals including oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurses are not amazing in the care that they provide during diagnosis and treatment. I hope you have or had a wonderful relationship with your care team. I have the utmost respect for the work that they do and the challenges that face on a daily basis. This is also not to say that they are not trying to figure out how to be better at meeting the needs of the whole person. Having worked with absolutely fantastic medical professionals, I can honestly say that modern cancer care includes an enormous number of relationships, information and task. It does take a team with many “experts” during treatment AND for healing and recovery.
Be the change you wish to see
If I could change one thing about how cancer care is delivered, I would wish that every “patient” would hear: “Well, we have completed the chemotherapy, or surgery or radiation to treat your cancer and now the next part of your treatment plan is to focus on your healing and wellbeing. We know different people struggle with different aspects of what ‘survivorship’ is and we have practitioners to help you with this next chapter (or series of chapters).” Next your doctor and treatment team would evaluate your particular situation and if needed, refer you to services and providers that you have identified as an area of need.
I do believe that in healing from cancer and cancer treatment there is an importance in fully acknowledging that each and everyone benefits from taking the time for rest, to reflect and to expand their awareness as some of the steps to fully move toward recovery. There is a need for healing. Healing may involve addressing your body, your mind and your spirit. You may be putting the pieces of a puzzle together in arriving at a new place of wholeness after cancer. Your life has been touched by cancer and you have been changed. The timeline for each and every person is different. What are the challenges that you face? Do you have support? Do you feel heard? Do you know how to advocate for what you need?
I have decided to step into my wish and “be the change I wish to see”. I am going to listen to both my passion and my muse. Yes, I want to make care for folks after cancer better. My goal is to provide information, coaching and support to assist you with the multiple aspects of healing. Often resources seem more readily available during the treatment phase than post-treatment and the time after treatment may feel lonely and isolated. Most folks are treated at community cancer centers that may not have the same services available as larger cancer centers. What are the challenges that you are facing? Do you know where to find support?
I wish to inspire a “revolution” in truly acknowledging AND integrating all things that may be helpful in treating and healing from cancer. I know that any one person’s healing requires a “targeted approach”. My head and heart are full of ideas for future blog post and interviews. What do you want to know more about? Is there a concern that you want addressed? What do you want to share? Just like the “Moonshot Initiative” headed by Vice President Biden I want to hear from you because we need to do this together. This is the beginning of something new.
I consider myself someone who can help you to connect the pieces of YOUR puzzle. Here to truly lend caring, compassion, healing and integration after a life-altering cancer experience. I may serve as a bridge between the traditional cancer treatment and the many integrative therapies that might be of use to you. Others may find my assistance best utilized in the identification of what the obstacles are and the steps to help surmount them. I do believe that each and every one of you decides what works best for you and what is most useful to you, as you move toward improved wellbeing and increasing your resilience. Step by step. I am here to help you navigate the course towards the personal approach that benefits you.
Resilience: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens
I do believe that much happiness in life is found in savoring those things in life that are often right in front of us. The way the sunlight “butters” an afternoon, the preciousness of laughter with friends, the sensuality of a good piece of chocolate melting in your mouth or the feeling of a warm hug. I also appreciate that cancer impacts your body, your mind, your emotions and your spirit. Life interrupted!! Your life has been altered. Your life is different than you imagined. Your body has been changed. For many it may be years before there is a sense of “being okay” and living fully. You may experience challenges in experiencing your sense of joy. I am here to help you connect the dots of finding what helps you to process your cancer experience and increase your resilience.
Let’s be the change we want to see. Please contact me and let me know your thoughts about what would have improved your recovery after cancer, your request for future blog post, folks you would like interviewed and any your comments. I look forward to speaking with you during a discovery session or working together over many sessions. If you are so inclined please share this with a friend, loved one or medical professional. Healing and recovery are steps in the treatment process. Do you desire more clarity on what those steps might be?
"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."
Choose healing, choose wonder, choose love.