Having cancer and undergoing cancer treatment can be tough on just about every part of your body, mind and soul.
Many women with ovarian cancer are interested in trying complementary therapies — natural therapies that are used together with mainstream medicine.
Carefully chosen complementary therapies can help to:
- Manage symptoms and side effects — including nausea, pain and fatigue.
- Relieve stress, anxiety and sleeplessness.
- Support your immune system.
- Encourage an overall feeling of wellbeing.
Research shows that women with ovarian cancer can benefit in many ways from using complementary therapies. These therapies are not intended to cure cancer, but to help you feel as well as you can.
Please seek expert advice from a qualified health professional when you are making choices about using any complementary therapy.
Before you start …
Before beginning any type of complementary therapy, have a chat to your GP or specialist and tell them about what you want to try. This is no time to be shy or embarrassed: it’s not your doctor’s job to judge your choices, but it IS their job to make sure that the therapy can work side-by-side with conventional treatments. Your doctor should also help you to access quality information and to understand information that you access for yourself.
Some natural therapies can interact with chemotherapy, preventing it from working properly or causing side effects. Think of your GP or specialist as the coordinator of your treatment who needs to be kept in the loop at all times.
Which different therapies might help?
There are many different therapies that may help in different ways and at various stages of your illness and treatment.
We have included information about some of the more popular complementary therapies in the pages that follow. To learn more about any of these therapies and about other therapies not mentioned here, see ‘More information’ at the end of this section.
The skin is your body’s largest organ and is covered in sensors. Massage stimulates those sensors to produce endorphins and encephalins — your body’s natural feel-good and pain-relieving chemicals. Benefits may include relief of muscle tension, improved sleep, reduced fatigue, pain relief, deep relaxation and immune support.
Acupuncture is an ancient form of traditional Chinese medicine that uses ultra-thin disposable needles or laser to stimulate the nervous system. Acupuncture has been well researched and it is known to help relieve pain, nausea, vomiting and other side effects of chemo and radiotherapy. It can also help with the sleeplessness that is often part of living with ovarian cancer.
If your GP or specialist has limited knowledge about complementary therapies, ask an appropriately trained health professional for their opinion.
Meditation and relaxation
Meditation is simply a way of slowing down and observing your mind. There are many different types of meditation and you may wish to try a number of different types to see what suits you best. But it helps to remember that meditation doesn’t have to be mystical or involve special techniques, and can be as simple as sitting in a quiet place and focusing on your breathing. By slowing down your body and mind, meditation helps you to relax and allows your body to focus its energy on getting well.
Mindfulness meditation is a popular type of meditation that has been widely used and can be very helpful for people living with long-term illnesses. This technique helps you to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way — accepting things as they are right now without worrying about the past or fearing the future.
Relaxation practise can be similar to meditation, and usually focuses on deliberately relaxing each of the major muscle groups in your body and often uses deep, conscious breathing.
Both meditation and relaxation can help with pain management, anxiety and depression, as well as improving immunity. Many people notice they have a greater feeling of general wellbeing and begin to sleep better when they practise meditation or relaxation exercises regularly. You can also use guided meditation and relaxation recordings that are specifically designed to help you enter into a deep, relaxing sleep.
There are many meditation and relaxation CDs available from libraries, bookstores, support groups and health professionals — you can also download guided meditations from the internet onto your computer or iPod. Some women prefer to join a class. There may be classes available at your cancer treatment centre or at a local community centre.
Cancer Council NSW has two helpful CDs: Mindful Meditation —For People With Cancer and Relaxation — For People With Cancer. To download the CDs, go to the Cancer Council website and enter ‘meditation’ or ‘relaxation’ into the search box. To have a free CD sent to you, call 13 11 20 in NSW or (02) 9334 1900 outside NSW.
A simple meditation
Settle yourself in a comfortable armchair, on a mat on the floor, or on your bed. Close your eyes and take several long, slow, deep, calming breaths.
Now imagine that with each breath IN you are drawing a stream of golden healing light into your body, allowing every cell to absorb and be rejuvenated by the light.
With each breath OUT, feel every cell in your body release any tension, negativity and toxicity.
Keep breathing in this way: drawing in the healing golden light and then releasing all tension and negativity.
Some people find it helpful to use a word like ‘revive’ or ‘refresh’ on their in breath, and then ‘release’ on their out breath. Experiment and see what feels right for you.
When you are ready, become aware of the sounds around you, wiggle your fingers and toes, and slowly come back to everyday consciousness.
Tai chi, qi gong and yoga
Tai chi, qi gong and yoga are all types of exercise that are based on ancient Eastern philosophies and combine gentle movement, focused breathing and elements of meditation. These types of exercise are sometimes called moving meditation and help to encourage flexibility, balance and a deep sense of calm. They are very popular with people recovering illness. Joining a class at your local community centre or treatment centre is an ideal way to learn and using a DVD at home is a good way to keep up regular practise.
Positive imagery uses the power of your mind to remember and imagine all kinds of positive experiences. It may be as simple as remembering a time when you felt happy, energised and well and then bringing those feelings back into your body.
Use any opportunity to bring positive thoughts and experiences into your life. It’s just another way to get your body producing those feel-good and pain-killing chemicals — and we can all do with plenty more of those!
Some naturopaths may recommend herbal medicines to help with symptoms and chemo side effects. When prescribed carefully by a naturopath who specialises in this area, these medicines can be helpful, but it’s vitally important that you talk to your GP or oncologist before starting to take any herbs or vitamins, as some of these can interact with conventional cancer treatments.
Homeopathy is a system of medicine that uses tiny doses of substances that support your body during illness. A natural therapist that specialises in homeopathy may prescribe remedies to help with nausea, sleeplessness, anxiety and energy levels.
Art and music therapy
Even if you think you haven’t got a creative bone in your body, you could be pleasantly surprised if you give art or music therapy a go. These are fantastic ways to ‘lose yourself ’ in activity that is totally removed from your illness — helping you to relax and distract you from pain.
Physical wellbeing: eating well and staying active
Eating a variety of different foods and staying active can help your physical and overall wellbeing in many ways when you have cancer and when you are recovering from treatment.
Eating well and being active can help:
- Improve your overall wellbeing.
- Lift your energy levels and mood.
- You to cope better with the side effects of treatment.
- Wounds and tissue to heal after surgery, chemo and radiotherapy.
- Improve your body’s ability to fight infection.
- Keep your weight at a healthy level.
For eating tips to help overcome nausea, vomiting, constipation and diarrhoea, see our ‘Coping with chemo’ factsheet. The same section includes simple ideas to help reduce fatigue — which is another important part of your overall wellbeing.
There are no special foods that you need to eat or avoid when you have cancer. Healthy eating during cancer treatment and beyond is all about eating a wide range of nourishing foods that can help you in your recovery and keep your weight at a healthy level.
But cancer and its treatment can often make healthy eating a bit of a challenge — especially when you feel nauseous, you’re constipated, you’ve lost your appetite, or you’re simply too tired to eat.
The ideas on the next couple of pages will help to provide you with a basic framework for healthy eating.
Building blocks for healthy eating
Plant foods should make up the biggest part of your diet: vegies, fruit, wholegrain breads and cereals and legumes. (Talk to a dietitian first if you are having problems such as constipation or diarrhoea, as they can advise whether you need to eat more or less fibre to help.)
Choose a range of colourful plant foods — orange, red, yellow, green — to help ensure that you are getting many different nutrients.
Go easy on fatty, highly processed foods such as chips, doughnuts, pies and pasties and many take-away foods that don’t do anything for your overall health and may make nausea and constipation worse.
Include canned or fresh fish a couple of times a week. It’s very easy to prepare and digest and full of nutrients that your body needs.
Remember that supplements cannot replace a healthy eating plan.
Eggs, skinless chicken and lean red meat are also good protein choices. It’s ideal to limit the amount of red meat you eat to less than 500 g of cooked meat a week and to avoid processed meats. (A medium portion of roast beef or pork is about 90 g and a medium steak is about 145 g).
If you choose to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink a day.
Salty foods like dry, salty crackers or pretzels can often help with nausea, so it’s fine to use these foods to help get you eating again when you are going through treatment. Once you’ve finished treatment, it’s ideal to limit salty foods and food processed with salt.
If you’re interested in reading more about current recommendations regarding lifestyle and cancer, visit the World Cancer Research Fund’s website at www.wcrf-uk.org and click on ‘Recommendations’. Following treatment, it is recommended that cancer survivors follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.
Enjoy being active
A physiotherapist may see you while you are in hospital and help you work out a plan of activity that will help your recovery without putting strain on your wound.
Once you are home, you can gradually add more activity into your day. Your family may want you to rest, but as long as your doctor has said you are ready to start exercising, then it will become a very important part of your recovery. Being active helps to boost your energy levels, decrease fatigue, relieve stress, help digestion and constipation, increase your appetite, reduce anxiety and depression, and increase your general wellbeing — all very important when you are recovering from cancer and having chemo.
Always talk to your doctor or physio if you are unsure if a certain activity will still be OK for you, or if you are well enough to start exercising again.
Walking, swimming, cycling and water exercise classes are gentle activities that many women feel comfortable with when they are recovering from ovarian cancer. Yoga and tai chi can be especially beneficial for your body and mind. Whichever activity you choose, you will need to start very slowly and gradually increase your activity level.
If you’re looking for a new activity to try or would like to do something active in a group, ask at your treatment centre or local community health centre.
As you continue to recover, it’s ideal to enjoy being active for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. Your doctor, physio or dietitian can provide you with more specific advice on the ideal amount and intensity of activity for you.
Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer is the beginning of an emotional journey that has no rules.
Section 3 of this guide: Finding out talks about the range of emotions that you may experience when you are first diagnosed and how you might share your feelings, build support and nurture yourself. For some women, the early days of shock, anger, panic and numbness are the most frightening. Over time, these intense feelings of distress usually begin to ease.
As your journey continues, different emotions are likely to surface at different times. The phase of your treatment, your physical health and the way you have previously coped in difficult times will affect the way you feel. Your family situation, financial stress and work situation will also influence how you feel.
Given that the timing, intensity and persistence of emotions varies greatly from one woman to another and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel, what does emotional wellbeing mean?
Emotional wellbeing means:
- Acknowledging that feeling emotions including fear, uncertainty, isolation, grief and loss are normal in your situation and allowing yourself to experience and express these emotions.
- Identifying your personal strengths in coping with a life crisis such as cancer.
- Using meditation, relaxation, exercise and other enjoyable activities to manage stress and to help yourself feel better.
- Asking for help from a health professional when you need to.
Sadness, loss and depression
Many women with ovarian cancer experience sadness, loss and some level of depression.
If you have had your ovaries and uterus removed and can no longer have children, you may feel a profound sense of loss surrounding your fertility.
Ovarian cancer can result in many other losses in your life — a loss of financial security, relationships, work security and some of your hopes and dreams.
The physical effects of cancer and side effects of treatment can also leave you feeling tired and low.
Anxiety and fear
Anxiety and fear are natural responses to new and distressing situations.
Not knowing what is going to happen next or what the future holds can make you feel worried and anxious.
Many women feel very anxious when waiting for their first chemotherapy treatment — the side effects and how you will respond to treatment are an unknown.
When you finish treatment you may feel alone and worried about the cancer coming back. And as time goes on, your follow-up visits may re-ignite fear and anxiety.
Turn to page xx for information about getting professional help for strong feelings of depression and anxiety that are not improving.
Working through your feelings
However you are feeling, you need to acknowledge strong emotions and allow yourself the opportunity to experience them. Don’t try shutting them out or putting on a brave face — they will just keep simmering away.
Talk about how you are feeling. Share your concerns with a family member, a friend or a member of your healthcare team. Describe how you are feeling to those closest to you. Saying something like ‘I am feeling really alone and afraid because …’ can begin a supportive conversation, whereas withdrawing from friends and family can leave them feeling unable to help.
Your healthcare team is treating YOU, not just your cancer. But they also depend on you to let them know how you are feeling; how those feelings are affecting your daily life and the way you cope with treatment. When your healthcare team knows how you are doing and any specific areas where you are struggling, they can direct you towards the help you need.
Practical ways to help yourself
Try thinking back to ways of coping or problem solving that have worked for you in the past. There may be a counsellor that you have seen before or a relaxation practice that you used. If you know something has worked for you before, it’s worth re-visiting. But if it isn’t working, it’s time to try some new approaches:
Make sure you get out of the house regularly and keep connecting with other people. Identify the people in your life who give you hope, motivation and strength and spend time with these people. This is no time to put up with people who drag you down.
Do little things that make you happy. Take a short walk in the park and enjoy being part of nature. Put a few drops of a favourite essential oil on your pillow at bedtime. Buy yourself a trashy magazine and enjoy getting lost in it. And never underestimate the power of a new lipstick!
Make humour part of your life. Watch funny DVDs or TV programs. Laugh out loud as often as you can. Even when you don’t feel like laughing, you’ll be surprised how good you can feel afterwards.
Take up a new hobby — choose something that you feel passionate about, that brings you joy and helps you feel good about yourself: it may be the creative joy of photography, writing, painting or playing a musical instrument, the satisfaction of growing vegetables, herbs or flowers, the release and flow of yoga or the quiet contemplation of sewing, cross-stitch or bird watching. Make your new enjoyable activity part of your life several days a week.
Try relaxation exercises, meditation or deep breathing
Ovarian Cancer Forum
Our Ovarian Cancer Australia Connect online forum gives you access to a community of compassionate and supportive women who have been affected by ovarian cancer. The forum includes a group on staying well through treatment and beyond; click here to explore further.